Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Purim Principle

Last night, March 19th, marked the beginning of Purim, a Jewish holiday regularly held shortly before Passover, the major spring Holiday. Passover gets lumped with Easter, the way Chanukah gets lumped with Christmas (even though the holidays have nothing in common) by well-meaning folks who want to give Jews semi-equal time during the major Christian seasons. But Purim is a stand-alone Jewish holiday which, it is my impression, is enjoying renewed importance among the growing population of contemporary observant Jews. For the record, when I was growing up, my Jewish mother and grandparents paid no attention whatever to Purim. I had heard of it, but it wasn’t a part of my life. And when I was studying Judaism as part of my training for the Interfaith ministry, I don’t remember much attention being paid to Purim – but to be honest, there was a lot of stuff covered about many faiths that I can’t now recall. So my education continues.

I’m very pleased to learn about Purim, because it appears to be a holiday that embraces intellect, compassion, political savvy, and outreach to others for a variety of reasons. Since I’m not knowledgeable about Purim and don’t see the point in synthesizing good critiques written by others, I want to direct you to two Purim posts on The Huffington Post today: “The Whimsy, Confusion and Hope of Purim” by Arnold E. Eisen, chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, and, “Forget God, Drink Responsibly, and Save the World One Person At a Time” by Brad Hirschfield, rabbi, author and expert on religion and public life. I hope you’ll take a moment and read these.

In a superficial nutshell, Purim is about celebrating what’s good in your life, not whining about what’s bad, being of service to others, and giving your relationships with family and friends the attention and respect they deserve. This is an important message for me, because even though I often and sincerely count my blessings, I could no doubt be certified as a professional whiner and I haven’t been of any meaningful service to anyone over the past couple of years. When you’re essentially a recluse, that kind of shit frequently happens. Similarly, I haven’t been giving the relationships in my life the attention they deserve, a bitter irony, as loneliness and isolation are two of my biggest beefs.

I thought it was interesting that just shortly before knowledge of Purim swam into my ken, I got an email from my friend Nadine Hack, who is presently executive-in-residence at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland. She recently placed a post on her company blog, beCause Global Consulting, entitled “Relationships: Connecting and Reconnecting,” in which she says: “The most profound relationships form and sustain when you connect deeply and then continue to nurture those connections, whether in personal or professional contexts.” In her work she’s teaching about “creating and sustaining highly relational engagement of [a business’] internal and external stakeholders.” I’m holed up here in the Tower always feeling abandoned while I do very little to nurture my extended group of connections. I didn’t know what to say in response to her post.

But yesterday I came across an article in the New York Times, “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You,” which says that not only are people ripping out land-line telephones in their homes in droves, relying exclusively on cells, people aren’t calling each other anymore just to chat; they’re texting and emailing to convey information. Phoning someone to chat is now considered invasive and rude, both personally and in business. I was aghast. It’s true, I only receive calls from a small corps of people, but I thought that demonstrated the collapse of my personal life, I didn’t know it was a cultural trend. Since I’ve been in the midst of bemoaning the death of the art of conversation, this was not so much a surprise as another kick to my psyche’s stomach.

I realize the world has changed enormously over the past ten years. The post-9/11 reality has become The New Normal: paranoid, fast-paced, highly competitive, less of a concept of privacy but a decreasing lack of intimacy, very high tech social interaction, increasing religious observance, increasing economic divide, decreasing social amenities, decreasing family cohesion, the dumbing-down of everything…etc. For me, this is personified by a TV commercial for audio-books that I’ve seen several times. It begins with a harried man saying, “I love reading books but who has the time?” We’ve become a society ever-more focused on doing rather than being, and it appears that most folks don’t have the time for the things that civilize and sustain – like chatting on the phone or reading a book! I’m not a happy camper. I have no place in this brave new world, yet here I am, hanging about on the edges.

So, if celebrating Purim can give us both the opportunity and the skill to slow down, party, connect, find reasons to be cheerful, and make time to be aware of and help others, maybe this is a holiday we should secularize so that everyone feels welcome in the groove. We could call it “Stop and Smell the Roses Day.” Think about it. I’ll give you a call.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crisis in Japan: A Cautionary Tale

It’s impossible to look at the videos and still photos of the destruction and despair in Japan [since that country was assaulted by a 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami last week] without feeling a deep sense of heartbreak for what people are going through. Thousands have lost everything; some have lost everyone in their families. The entire nation is speechless with grief and overwhelmed by what will be required to repair their country and carry on. And now, of course, there are the dangers of a huge nuclear disaster with the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. A “minor” disaster could destroy all or most of Japan; a major one could have a serious impact on other parts of the world, including our Hawaii and California. Any way you look at it, it’s a terrible state of affairs, one that requires considerable contemplation on our part.

Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the inherent lessons of this event. Not all devastating natural (or man made) disasters are equal. People got upset about the conditions in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and after the horrific earthquake in Haiti. But the powers that be (whoever they are) are clearly not that distressed, because very little has been done to help the majority of those most affected in both of these locales. I think it’s fair to say that the reasons are similar: New Orleans is a “chocolate city” as N.O. Mayor Ray Nagin observed (and then apologized for saying, because it’s rude to imply that there’s entrenched racism in America…), and Haiti is a chocolate country. In both cases, there are also native cultures that many people disapprove of – the Voodoo element in Haiti, and the sex and music of New Orleans. In addition, the demise of Haiti would do no damage to the rest of the world, and the demise of New Orleans (while some would view it as a great loss) would not be a huge loss to most of America.

Japan, on the other hand, is the world’s third-largest economy. Even though the Japanese are Asian and were our sworn enemy in the 1940s, we and the rest of the world will overlook that, because we want to continue buying the things they make (the chips for our cell phones and i-whatevers are at stake!) and selling them the things we make. They’re a First World country and as such they must be saved. No matter what it costs the global community, and no matter what else happens in Japan, that country will rise again, because it’s an economic imperative that it does. A quick glimpse at their stock market and those around the world right now attests to this. So, while I feel terrible for the people of Japan, especially those old enough to remember World War II, I’m confident that they’ll be okay when all is said and done.

I’m less confident that they, or we, or anyone else, will come to the conclusion that nuclear power in an over-populated, over-stressed modern world is a bad idea (current protests in Germany n0twithstanding). The Fukushima plant was built in the 70s, as were a number of key plants in the U.S. and around the world. Fellow Boomers: do you recall our passionate protests against the beginnings of nuclear power? Nonetheless, it became commonplace and we stopped protesting, because we wanted the uninterrupted, unlimited comforts of richly-flowing electricity like everyone else.

Why didn’t the U.S. begin investing in solar and wind power back in the 70s? Then-President Jimmy Carter wanted to, but back then as now, Republicans didn’t see the need or value in it. (Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House and Reagan angrily had them removed.) I’ve had grown-up people say to me: “But what happens when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing?,” as if these systems aren’t constructed with reserve components in acknowled- gment of the existence of night and periods of soft breezes (!). Is it too late for us to invest in these sensible technologies? Probably. In any case, it won’t happen on any significant scale, because President Obama supports it, and as we’ve seen, anything he supports must be thwarted at all costs by the disloyal opposition.

Personally, I believe that the extraordinary number of natural disasters worldwide over the past several years are just part and parcel of the global catastrophe predicted for the 2012 era – and as some of you roll your eyes at the mere mention of the 2012 phenomenon, let me say this: no one ever said December 21, 2012 will mark the end of the world; rather, it will signal the end of the world as we know it and a new era (low tech, peaceful, less populace) will begin. In addition, 2012 is just a touchstone point in time. We’ve been working up to this for decades, and it may take a few more decades for the end/beginning to go into full swing.

However, whether you believe in this or not (dismissing 2012 as if it were Y2K or a newspaper horoscope), know this: there are more disasters to come – natural and otherwise. Some of them governments will seek to cope with, others they will ignore. But all of them are changing the world around us in ways no one can deny. Will we be brave and innovative and wise, try to rid ourselves of dangers where we can, and acknowledge that the 21st century is not the 20th and therefore requires different responses from both individuals and nations? Unfortunately, that remains to be seen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Praise of 21st Century Guerrilla Politics

When the Republican-majority Wisconsin State Senate met in virtual secret last night, sans their Democratic colleagues, and decimated all public-sector unions in the state with one fell swoop, they were practicing 21st Century Guerrilla Politics. And whether you agree or disagree with their position (guess where I fall…), you’ve gotta give `em an A+ for balls and the courage of their convictions – however demented their convictions may be.

Their move will likely (hopefully…) be challenged by the Democrats; this fight isn’t over. But more important than this specific incident is the fact that the Republicans have been practicing Conservative guerrilla politics for years. They began with stealing the 2000 election (with the help of their Conservative cronies on the U.S. Supreme Court) and continued with eight years of George Bush doing whatever the hell he wanted to – including starting two unfunded wars and ratcheting up the federal deficit by billions – while ignoring public protest and disapproval all the way.

Now, while continuing to reject the legitimacy of the Obama administration at every turn, the Republicans are at it again, full-tilt-boogie, emboldened by a small percentage of the voting public who put a few additional Republicans in power on the federal, state and local levels in the 2010 elections. And as the race for 2012 begins in earnest (give me a huge goddamn break: another 2-year election cycle??), Congressional Republicans are working very hard to dismantle virtually all legislative good that’s been accomplished over the past 50 years.

And what are the Democrats doing in response? For the most part, nothing, no doubt taking a cue from our Democratic President, who is still trying to govern by diplomacy, generosity and fair play – which would be admirable if it weren’t for the fact that his opponents are playing as mean and dirty as they possibly can!

It would be great if the Republicans and Democrats could play nicely together, debating and compromising by day, and whoring and drinking together by night, as they used to in the old days. (I think everyone on both sides of the aisle would function better if they were getting laid more regularly, but such are the conse-quences of living in a Born Again Puritan nation.)

However, that isn’t what’s happening. What’s going on is that many people in this country are royally pissed off that there’s a black man in the White House and a small number of Democrats (not including the Presi- dent) are trying to inject a little Liberal flavor into a Republican legislative diet of pure Conservative values.

But, common belief notwithstanding, those with Conservative beliefs do not represent the majority of Americans. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans don’t vote and don’t pay attention to politics, because they think that whatever politicians do, their lives will be made no better and no worse than they are right now. About this the majority is quite wrong. Republican politicians – such as those in Wisconsin, for example – are in a position to make our lives much less pleasant and much more difficult than they are now (hard as that may be to imagine).

Today, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a White House Conference on the dangers and general badness of bullying and the impact it’s having in schools and family neighborhoods across the land – an important and noble undertaking. I sorely wish the President would (1) whip his stupid-ass party into line and (2) either call out the Republicans for their bullying, or, start doing some bullying himself, start playing some 21st century guerrilla politics himself. He must come to terms with the fact that the people who hate him are never going to like him, and the people who love him are growing weary of standing by a President who isn’t standing by them.

Yes, we’ll vote for him in 2012, rather than cast our lot with the Republicans, no matter what he does or doesn’t do – and he knows that. But we deserve better than to be taken for granted. Please stand up for us, Mr. President – whether you do it directly, or sneak up behind them and hit them in the head with a rock. When the opposition plays hardball with you, then you gotta play hardball back. You’re enough of a politician to know that. Where’s your gumption? Where’s your outrage? Where’s your Lincoln? Come on, Mr. President: show us your game!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Unions: Learning From History

As State workers protest for their rights in Wisconsin; as teachers in NYC prepare to lose 8,000 in their ranks due to budget cuts; and as workers across America, legal and undocumented, unionized and otherwise, fear for their jobs and their survival, now would be a good time to be reminded about what unions have meant for American workers – and what they mean now.

Unionization here has its roots in the Gilded Age of Industrial America at the turn of the 19th-to-20th century, and became the cause celeb of the 1930s and 1940s. Because of unionization, people who had worked and often become injured, sick or died in factories and mines under unspeakable conditions became heroes and agents of fabulous social change.

Through unionization, the general public became aware of inhumane working conditions. Unions brought forth the five-day week, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, an end to child labor and, increasingly, the inclusion of health, vacation and retirement benefits. There is no question that communists/socialists played a role in unionization – and government and management used this bogeyman to undermine unions and turn workers against them. It was a shitty ploy way back when, and it still is now.

Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers union, working people have, in many instances, begun to take a step backwards. Office workers, in particular, who have rarely had the benefit of union protection, have had no recourse in the face of corporate downsizing, outsourcing, salary and benefit decreases, and constant pressure to take on more work in the same amount time and for the same amount of money.

I do want to acknowledge that contemporary unions in some industries have become corrupt, greedy and uncooperative, and as seemingly uncaring of workers rights and safety as small company owners and corporate monoliths. Given the noble history of American unions, this is a shame and a travesty, and no one can deny that such unions need to clean house and straighten up and fly right.

Members of all unions should be pushing for reform in their leadership and make unions the legitimate voice of working people once again. Some teachers’ unions, for example, which in the past did so much to ensure the protection of teachers and the quality of American education, definitely seem to have lost their way.

In New York, the union wants the 8,000 teachers who are threatened with dismissal to be “the last ones hired,” protecting older teachers and tenure, without regard for the quality of the teachers that remain. Teachers themselves are calling for cuts based on lack of talent and unproductive performance, but their union leaders are not backing them up. This will have a disproportionate impact on poor kids in low-income neighborhood schools, because it’s the newest teachers that generally get these undesirable assignments.

However, the fact that some unions are not what they should be does not exempt employers from treating workers fairly, or the general public from not supporting the rights of working people. Once again, the misguided belief on the part of many people who like to think of themselves as middle class instead of working class results in their not identifying with other workers and championing their cause.

It’s the same delusionary thinking that allows some working people to embrace Republican and Conservative values, even though those political platforms are antithetical to their best interest. In addition, the increasing employment of undocumented workers – illegal aliens whom much of the country fear and despise – have allowed factory work to return to pre-union conditions of sweatshops with child labor.

Indeed, it is a complete lack of a sense of solidarity with working people around the world that has permitted Americans to take advantage of cheap, imported goods, ignoring the fact that the workers in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and other locales are toiling under conditions we rejected 100 years ago.

It would be of great benefit to working people here and worldwide if Americans supported proper union goals and efforts. If we don’t, we run the risk of soon working countless hours for pennies under miserable condi-tions. As we watch the labor activities of the moment unfold, it’s something important to keep in mind.