(Published on Medium)
Ever since I first became aware of the Holocaust close to sixty years ago, I have had a well-cultivated consciousness of the alarming behavior that preceded it and maintained its momentum. It was more than a cult of personality — though it certainly was that, too. The upending of decency in pre-World War II Europe was the empowering of supremacists who saw their leader’s trajectory as their own. Intoxicated by the removal of limitations on their scruples, they considered themselves divinely authorized to seize power — over government, and over people’s lives.
It is a political adage that “whoever says Hitler first, loses the argument.” And let’s be clear, I was not the first to say it. The significant numbers of t-shirts with Holocaust and Nazi references among the insurrectionists laying siege to the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday have that dubious distinction.
White nationalists in this country have long invoked the Nazis by name and philosophy, finding their analogue in the pathetic remnants of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. All of them — the Confederates, the Nazis, the Klan — were the big losers of history. They remain an inspiration only to those whose moral character is lacking and who need the scapegoats of past losers to explain away why people of good will and higher principle, who value truth, ethics and generosity, will not acknowledge their self-proclaimed superiority.
And so, it is people with “inferior” beliefs — Muslims, Jews, atheists, Eastern practitioners. It is people with darker skin. It is people who speak a different language. And most of all, it is people who “win” when they “lose.” They are the enemy. And the person who will champion their cause will inspire them to loyalty.
A president who demands loyalty has a constituency that has only loyalty to give. And when both leader and followers are desperate not to be abandoned, the values they purport to represent become inconveniences. Among those values is religious freedom, freedom of conscience, free choice of belief. We saw those values abandoned in the burning of “Black Lives Matter” banners, in “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirts, in the parading of the stars-and-bars through the Capitol. We saw those values abandoned by a president who responded to insurrection with the message to the perpetrators: “We love you.”
For more than a quarter of a century, Interfaith Alliance has warned that the real threats to this country are from within, from those who would deny the full protections of the Constitution to every citizen and who secretively train for domestic terrorism in militias and white supremacist groups. From those whose religious extremism corrupts the meaning of evangelical Christianity from a message of “love thy neighbor” to “keep that guy out of the neighborhood.”
Donald Trump has been an embarrassment as president, and it is a danger that he continues to hold the office. He must go.
Donald Trump is a loser, in every sense of the word.
And if you still support him, then so are you.
Once, during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, I parked my car on Capitol Hill. I noticed next to me a bumper sticker on the neighboring car. It said, simply, “I Miss Bill.” The contrast between the Clinton years and the subsequent administration were significant, both in substance and in tone. But even as I chuckled at how three words captured my mood, I knew Bill wasn’t coming back.
Well, it’s pretty near twenty years later. Bill is still not coming back, and neither is any other president. But I have to acknowledge that I do not remember the contrast between predecessor and successor being as profound then as I do now. I Miss Barack.
That may be a peculiar thing to say as the Trump administration enters its final rambunctious hours. But I have been listening to the memoir of the Obama presidency written by – and read by – the author himself in my daily walks around the neighborhood. I am surprised by a number of things.
First of all, I agree with less of his policy approach than I thought I did. He was a little too cautious for me. Second, though he was a fast learner, it’s pretty evident that he could have used a little more seasoning before he took charge of the country. Idealism has its place, but as we learned from his predecessor, the presidency is not a place for on-the-job training. Thirdly (and this is my conjecture), he reads more than he listens to people. I say it because he mispronounces some words as if he learned them from a book and not a conversation.
Hey, we survived these flaws, even if we suffered for some of them some of the time. And I know that some people celebrated anything Obama did, and some people trashed anything he did for reasons that didn’t always have to do with whatever it was he did. But you have waited long enough for an explanation of why I Miss Barack.
It’s the sheer humanity of the man.
Other than Sarah Palin and Mitch McConnell, Obama recognizes the good in everyone, even the people he criticizes. Too often for those who put him on a pedestal, not often enough for those who see only his faults, he is self-deprecating. He delights in those who challenge him. He admires those who are smarter than he is. He owns his mistakes.
He likes basketball (a lot). He is embarrassed by the trappings of the office. He cherishes his friends. He has a recurring dream that he is walking around a busy city neighborhood and nobody recognizes him – and says he is in heaven.
But most of all, he speaks lovingly and respectfully of his children and, especially, his wife. Especially his wife. He likes her more than basketball, admires her more than smart people, cherishes her more than his friends. And he worries about her and – wait for it – changes his behavior when he recognizes that it troubles her.
Yes, the man could give a speech. Yes, he was unflappable enough to go from the capture of Bin Laden to the White House Correspondents Dinner without missing a beat. Yes, he let Republicans yell at him. Yes, he tried to ignore the racist and nativist questions about his citizenship. Yes, the worst personal scandal in his eight years was sneaking cigarettes (until he stopped).
But more important, he is a man to admire personally. He is the kind of person I hope my children and grandchildren become. He is the kind of person against whom I can measure myself and be inspired to do better without resentment. He is the kind of person who embodies the American ideal.
We have had four years without a scintilla of those qualities. Go back and read my praise and see if the current occupant of the Oval Office has ever inspired you to be a better person on those terms. Not a more effective person, not a more successful person, not a more powerful person. A better human being.
I tried for four years to listen to supporters of President Trump to figure out what they saw in him. I even asked some of them, including more than one who professed a deep faith in God’s message of loving humankind so much that God sent us a redeeming child. One of them – no longer a correspondent of mine – answered, “I don’t want to have a beer with him, I just want him to support my positions.”
I Will Not Miss Donald.
The custom in this country is to make promises to yourself to be better than you are on December 31. A New Year’s resolution is about your internal resolve. Some have it, and others are more like me.
But another meaning of resolution is to fix something that is dissonant, something like “President of the United States” who is a “reprehensible example of humanity” by any and all noble standards.
Thanks, President Obama, for reminding me that it was not only possible but real. This is one New Year’s resolution I am confident will be kept.
The most startling moment of the Vice-Presidential Debate for me was the weaponization of President Trump’s grandchildren.
Even when I served the mostly insular community of a synagogue, I knew better than to exploit my kids (or anyone else’s) for effect. Their behavior, including the adorable things they said, were not fodder for my public pronouncements unless, as they got older, they agreed to be quoted. Now that I have grandchildren, I see how their parents (my aforementioned children) have embraced that protectiveness. The little ones rarely appear on social media, and then only to family and friends.
Vice President Pence, by contrast, tried to defend his boss’s credibility as a champion of tolerance and pluralism by noting that he has “Jewish grandchildren.” The comment came in response to a challenge familiar to Americans – the president has been equivocal at most in addressing the anti-semitism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim bigotry of some of his supporters. Once you begin with “there are fine people on both sides” and end with “stand back and stand by,” it doesn’t much matter how you fill in the middle. Yet, as if Mr. Trump had anything to do with his daughter’s decision to embrace Judaism or to raise her offspring in a traditional Jewish family, Mr. Pence deployed the most stereotypical of excuses, essentially, “some of his best grandchildren are Jewish.”
The notion that the president’s policy decisions and public statements are swayed by children is laughable. I have no doubt he loves his family. But the body of evidence regarding his sacrificial attitude toward children in this country is overwhelming. He denies them a social safety net. He opposes their comprehensive health care. He diverts money from their schools. He wants to send them away if their parents are not legal residents. He insists, against scientific evidence, that they have immunity from a dangerous virus. And, oh yes, he separates them from their parents and puts them in cages.
Jewish grandchildren do not inoculate Grandfather Trump from the consequences of his dog-whistles and his encouragement of those out to do them harm. Indeed, even those Jewish Republicans who continue to support the president claim as his bona fides his relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem and other foreign policy victories. They know better – so many of them Jewish grandparents themselves – than to exploit the innocence of little ones for political gain. They know better because they heard him say to them, “I don’t want your money; therefore, you’re not going to support me.”
And with the exception of sidekicks like Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s xenophobic border policy, high-profile Jewish advisors from the respected, like Gary Cohn, to the opportunistic, like Michael Cohen, have distanced themselves from the president and reported his disregard for any real defense of the victims of anti-semitism and other racial and religious bigotry.
I am not reporting anything new, nor would I revisit this well-established record of insensitivity to both faith and youth were it not for the vice president’s outrageous attempt at innocence by association. I take Mr. Pence at his word – and his record – that he is motivated by his own religious convictions to protect and defend those he and his allies deem the “unborn” children, but he belies that commitment when he is willing to use little children as a tool of political rhetoric against an abundance of grown-up evidence.
Both debates have been a cavalcade of misbehavior and dubious representations. Perhaps we have come to expect that conduct from candidates for political office. But I am with the young student whose question was selected to end the Vice Presidential Debate: where are the role models for young people in this country who will learn by example? I most definitely hope that they have the native wisdom to resist the behavior that made Mr. Pence’s defense of the president necessary, and to refuse to imitate his willingness to turn them into a tool of politicking.
The tributes to Cong. John Lewis are richly deserved. They will focus on the public man and his admonitions to people to “get into good trouble.” And well they should. As an inspiration to activists over the course of more than sixty years, he always set the example of what my late mother-in-law, Carol Davidson, used to say: You have a mouth; use it. John Lewis felt the same way about his body, using it whenever necessary to “get in the way.”
I was in no way a friend of this man, though he greeted me and treated me like one. It does not make me unusual, but it gives me a couple of unique stories to tell. I say “unique,” but that’s because they are unique to me. For John, they were typical.
I have long been active in the Faith and Politics Institute, the most important organization you never heard of. Faith and Politics works primarily with elected officials and their staffs on Capitol Hill to help them actualize their individual and collective commitments to public service and personal values. Most especially, the focus has been on race (though not only on race). For more than thirty years, senators, representatives and others have joined in a pilgrimage to the civil rights south, especially Alabama, where they heard from “luminaries,” veterans of the movement. Those encounters have taken place in Birmingham, Montgomery and, on Sunday morning, in Selma. The host and guide was always John Lewis.
I met him on my first pilgrimage and thereafter many, many times. I heard him speak so often, I could tell the familiar stories about preaching to the chickens, holding down the house, meeting Martin Luther King and crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge with an apple and a toothbrush in his backpack. Yet, every time he told those stories they concluded with a fresh message that drew a straight line from faith or opportunity or preparation directly to the matter at hand.
No one is always right. John Lewis came close.
But here are three of my stories that have less to do with John Lewis the public figure than John Lewis the man. Set aside your interest in his life of public service. Here was a life worth emulating.
More than a dozen years ago, I found myself on a bus with John on our drive from Selma to Montgomery. Also on the bus was Susannah Heschel whose father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, had marched with Dr. King in Selma. She and her husband had brought their baby along. I took a picture of John Lewis cradling that child as if it were his own grandbaby. The emotion he exuded was profound. Later that same day, we disembarked from a plane at DCA. My photograph from that moment was from behind John, just after he had gently taken the hand of Ethel Kennedy – a gesture of respect and support.
Many years later, I was dispatched by my alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, to deliver a letter asking John to agree to receive an honorary doctorate. Hoping simply to hand him the envelope, I made an appointment to visit his congressional office. When I arrived, he was waiting for me, and asked me to come into his private office. He brought no aide, set no time limit, ordered his calls held.
He engaged me in conversation that was at once personal and respectful, setting at ease a guy still able to be star-struck at sixty. Then he opened the envelope, read the letter, and asked me about one detail it mentioned: this was Rabbi Heschel’s seminary? I said yes. He put the letter down and said, “Then I would be privileged to accept this honor.” No scheduler, no political advisor, no other question. We were finished in fifteen minutes, but he asked me if I would like to see some of the mementos on his wall. He proceeded to walk me through a gallery of photos that chronicled his presence in modern American history. To him, this casual acquaintance who came to impose on his time was, at that moment, the most important person he knew.
The last time I was with John was at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A year ago, I went on the pilgrimage again. At the end of Sunday’s march across that bridge, John volunteered to have his picture taken with anyone who wanted it. I held back – the elected officials went first, then the sponsors, finally the hangers-on. By the time I stepped up, he had taken individual photographs with hundreds of people. He was glad to see me and remembered the visit in his office and the honorary degree. Yes, we were posed for the official photo. But the guy who volunteered to use my cellphone captured the moment that you see illustrating this column.
John Lewis never for a moment forgot his public responsibilities. The policy positions he took were often unpopular, and he did not shy away from the controversy he therefore had to engage. I know enough people in public service to know that is not unusual.
But first and foremost, he was a man who saw the image of the Creator in whom he deeply believed in every person he met – including his opponents – and the opportunity to lift up the Divine Presence in every encounter, no matter how incidental.
His was a life to emulate.
If there is a single aspect of support for President Trump by faith communities that is most disappointing to me, it is the rationale that “he has been so good to us.”
I am certainly an imperfect vessel for the teachings of my own Jewish tradition, but I try my best to live life according to the essential messages of my faith. While many of those messages are about personal conduct – we have 613 of them, just to start – the folk medicine of my rabbinic ancestors provides a pithier perspective on what it means to live in community.
Millennia ago, people believed that the heart was the center of human thought and behavior. The ancient rabbis posited that it was made up of two chambers and that a single impulse was contained in each. In one chamber was the impulse to goodness. In the other was the impulse to evil.
The more I learned about those two impulses, the less satisfied I was with their designations. For example, a fanciful story was told about the day that a band of pious people captured the evil impulse so that the world would be entirely good. On that day, no one built a house, no business was conducted, and the chickens didn’t lay eggs.
Is there anything evil about those activities? Not inherently, of course. But each one is an activity that is self-serving. (The chickens are euphemistic for human reproduction!) The tale concludes with the affirmation that the world cannot survive without the “evil” impulse.
When I learned this story, I began to call the two impulses altruism and selfishness. We mortals cannot survive this world without meeting our hierarchy of needs. We need food, shelter, safety and, of course, someone to care about us. No person can only give, never receive. Religious folk (like me) posit only one such being in the cosmos – a self-sufficient God.
So it is no surprise that faith traditions find different ways to encourage adherents to emulate the altruism of the divine being. The power of this selfish impulse seems never to abate. A consciousness of the impulse to selflessness – that is, to Godliness – is necessary to hold it in check.
In the current political climate, nothing is holding the selfish impulse in check, especially among those in the faith communities who are sycophants of the president. They are satisfied to have received support for their own narrow desires.
In the conservative evangelical community, in the politically right-wing Jewish community, in the racially-driven supremacist community, the willingness of the president and this administration to feed their selfishness without regard for others strikes me as exactly the opposite of what participants in creating “a more perfect union” ought to be about.
In the Jewish community, I hear a lot of how there has never been a president who was better for Israel and the Jewish community. The claim is based on symbolic acts of doubtful effectiveness – moving an embassy, singling out Jews on campus for special protection, reneging on a agreement to control nuclear proliferation that enjoyed wide support.
In the end, pandering to the selfish desires of any group makes one an agent of that second chamber of the heart, the one that impels us to take, never to give. Cloaking such activities in the language of piety or framing the desires as inherently good circumvents the character development that genuine religious faith is supposed to encourage. The person who receives abundance and turns their back on those who receive less than they need or deserve is not blessed. Rather, they are unfairly privileged.
A famous activist once said, “A person who does not vote in self-interest is a fool. A person who votes only in self-interest is a scoundrel.” In political terms, that formulation is the same as the ancient understanding of the two chambers of the heart. While too often we cynically view our electoral choices as the lesser of two evils, we might have a greater impact on turning our society away from its current political misery if we framed our choices as the greater of two goods. A balance is necessary between self-interest and unlimited generosity. The question to ask of candidates – and of those in office, high or low – is not “whose interests will you serve,” rather “how can we make this a more perfect union.”
When “he has been so good to us” is a code phrase for “he has disadvantaged others for our benefit,” the result is a betrayal of admirable faith values. It is a capitulation to the wrong chamber of the heart, the one that contains the impulse to selfishness at the expense of altruism. It is the opposite of Godliness.
Each tradition has a name for the agent of selfishness. It should never be President of the United States.
While everyone is focused on the state-wide election results in Virginia, it is a local contest that gives me encouragement that Americans have had enough anger and divisive rhetoric from the top.