Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Non Beauty of War

CNN: Donald Trump became President tonight.
Washington Post: Put credibility back into American power.
MSNBC: Beautiful.

With all due respect, dropping bombs does not make someone presidential, in and of itself says nothing about credibility, and, even in the most justifiable circumstance, is never, ever, beautiful. It is a violent and destructive act that inflicts damage, pain and suffering which, even in the most defensible of situations, simply should not be celebrated.

I know there are many who would argue those points and they have that right. I have friends who would argue those points. But the above refers to the most defensible of situations, and unfortunately no one, and I mean not a single person, can even clearly articulate the goals of this decision, much less predict the repurcussions.

So media, please stop falling all over yourselves propping up an act of war, praising the decision maker, or failing to provide even a modicum of journalistic integrity. This act in and of itself will accomplish nothing positive; it is merely an opening salvo. This path could lead, after much suffering and anguish, to Assad's removal and a stable post-Assad Syria. It could lead to an end to chemical weapon attacks, or even to an end to the Syrian refugee crisis. And if so, we can discuss the merits and decide whether the journey justified the destination.

Because ends don't necessarily justify means. But let's assume for a moment that the ends, in this case, do end up justifying whatever means unfold as a result of this bombing. In that case, military might has achieved its objective and it could be argued that its deployment was the best among a list of really unpalatable options. Fair enough. Even as an avowed pacifist who believes that violence begets more violence and that it is almost never the right answer, I must acknowledge that almost never is not the same as always never.

And I'll reluctantly write that I was wrong, that this decision was indeed presidential, re-established the credibility of American military intervention, and was the correct thing to do. But I will never call it beautiful.

There are many dramatically negative consequences that could stem from this decision, quite possibly on the global level. The United States is quite aware of what Middle East state-making looks like these days: endless war. Maybe we'll get lucky this time or the future will look back and decide this was the right decision.

But until that time comes, let's not only hold the media accountable. Let's hold ourselves accountable- to watch closely, to question our leaders, to challenge, and to constantly question our comfort with how this unfolds. Most of all, let's refuse to celebrate until we are sure it was the right decision.

And either way, regardless of what happens, let's never forget:

War is never beautiful.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day, Donald Trump, and Leonard Cohen

It's Veterans Day, and people are celebrating by burning flags as much in protest of Tuesday's election as the current state of our nation. But what is a nation but some artificial construct meant to unite as much as it’s meant to divide. Nations mean nothing to me. If there is injustice and poverty and suffering in this world, it ripples outward like a wave and touches all of us. Every act of kindness and beauty affects us all in similar ways. I prefer to practice the latter, randomly or otherwise. One of the most beautiful poetic voices in history passed away last night. Maybe Leonard Cohen couldn’t handle the sadness of what happened Tuesday. He was 82. My 94 year old grandmother couldn’t handle it either. Once it was clear what was happening, she became confused. She didn’t know where she was. She wasn’t the only person who felt lost that night, or in the days since.

Leonard Cohen reminded us there is a crack in everything. But he also reminded us that's how the light gets in.

It doesn't seem like we are living in a period of great harmony or balance right now. From Brexit to Syrian refugees to black vs blue lives matter to our presidential election. In the last four days, I have already heard at least five first-hand stories of swastikas and n-words and go back to Africa's and homophobia, sometimes in the act of ugliness. Nations are closing their doors on children fleeing violence and starvation. We elected a president who vowed to upend the lives of 11 million immigrants, 20 million poor people who finally have health care, and countless hundreds of millions who practice a particular religion. We elected a Vice President who has set gay and reproductive (and thus human) rights back a generation.

This isn’t partisan bickering or liberal propaganda or my opinion. These are their words. These are their actions. They are words and acts that make sense to many, but they hurt my soul. They are not the actions I want taken by my leaders.  My gay friends, my immigrant friends, my poor friends, my friends of color, my children: all are terrified of what's next. Donald Trump supporters are rightfully elated with his victory. But they are not acting with love or kindness if they don’t feel at least an iota of compassion for the people who are understandably and rightfully terrified. Immigrants, adopted children, families struggling to get by who finally don’t have to worry about one medical emergency destroying their family. Gay friends who finally feel a modicum of safety. All of those whose hard fought rights may well be taken away. Trump supporters may not believe they deserved these rights in the first place. I believe we still have a long way to go to achieve the promise of equality. I also believe that is one of the reasons we exist.

I have good friends who voted for Donald Trump. I don't hate them. I'm not de-friending them. In the moments where I am my highest self, I can even defend them. As Leonard Cohen said, "I don't consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin." I do feel soaked to the skin. Many humans feel soaked to the skin, regardless of how they voted. The pain we all feel is real. The solutions are myriad and complicated. I understand why so many yearn to return to a simpler time.

Leonard Cohen asked: “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?” Yesterday feels nice, it boasts of front porches, lemonade, and neighbors helping neighbors. But it wasn’t nice for any marginalized human. In fact, this is the best time in the history of our species for everyone except white heterosexual males. It’s not like they are losing ground. It’s just that everyone else is finally starting to catch up.

I walked last night, in protest, with thousands of people who were furious and terrified and soaked to the skin. They chanted, they prayed, they waved signs and burned flags. Police in riot gear stood beside them, with sirens screaming and helicopters circling, massive spotlights burning holes from above. Like the tear gas. Like the election. Like the pain.

I am responding with hope and love to Trump supporters, just as I want them to do for me. Just because every Trump supporter is not misogynist, racist or homophobic does not mean those things no longer exist. These feelings, horrific as they are, are all rooted in fear. I want to reach my arms out to them, so that they may feel the peace and balance that comes with a loving heart. It is only by talking, working, loving, and connecting that we can heal the wounds that live within these cracks. The wounds were there before Tuesday and were not going away regardless of who won. It will take far more work than that.

Connections and communication across the divide seems to be losing traction. One thing I can guarantee, with absolute and profound certainty: further movement to the poles, away from each other, to a place where everyone surrounds themselves with people who look and act and think just like them, wrapping themselves in the certainty of their own righteousness, will only grow the divide that already exists. It is up to every human on this planet to work against those forces, blowing us backward. When we push ourselves forward, into this strong headwind, we honor not just our veterans, but also our humanity.

My friends who supported Trump are scared too. They voted Trump because they believe government is too intrusive, or because they are fiscally conservative, or because their wages haven't gone up in a generation and they have to blame someone, and the easiest target is a sitting two term President. We have lived for eight years with the audacity of hope, and we wanted to make it four more. But in this much divided nation, a third term Presidency is hard to achieve. The last time it happened was 1988, over a quarter century ago. I am scarcely able to handle how much the world has changed since then.

I believe love and compassion are more powerful forces than fear and hate. But they aren't great motivators when people are hurting, mad, or scared. They are a hard sell. Everyone knows fear is easier. It's a shame that here, in 2016, we still live in a world where fear is so powerful. 

I think about our veterans today, and the fear so many of them had to feel as they walked into danger. The fear so many of them still fear today, re-acclimating and struggling with post-traumatic stress. Fear is not reserved for anyone. It is freely available, like death. But the reality of death helps appoint meaning to life. Fear, on the other hand, only steals our moments of beauty and our opportunities for love and spiritual connection.

I'm quite sure that the majority of people who voted for Donald Trump would be burning in anger as they watched our flag engulfed in flames, especially on the eve of the day meant to honor those who fought on its behalf. Soaked to the skin. I know and have known many veterans and I honor all of them but this day, to me, is equally about everyone who fights to make this nation, this world, this existence, a better, most just, and more equal one. Teachers, agitators, protestors, advocates, and volunteers. I honor them all on Veterans Day; everyone who fights for freedom, justice, equality and a better world.

It is with their stories burrowed deep in my soul that I believe that people have the right to be offended by flag burning. They have the right and I honor that right. Just like they have the right to vote for Donald Trump for President.

But with even greater passion, I believe in real freedom more than symbols of freedom. To me, that means our veterans fought far more for the right to burn the flag than for the flag itself. So, in a small but powerful way, I see flag burning at a Trump protest as a way of honoring that which our veterans fought to protect. Rights are good things. Once we grant them, they should not be taken away. I hope we keep that in mind as we move forward on health care, education, criminal justice, marriage equality, reproductive freedom, freedom of religion assembly and speech, and the freedoms that have been extended to people with disabilities, to children, to women, and to people of color.

There is a crack in everything. It was there before Tuesday. It will take all of us to seal it. Until then, let’s draw strength from the light that still manages to pass through.

Cohen sang: Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed, Everybody knows the war is over, Everybody knows the good guys lost, Everybody knows the fight was fixed, The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That's how it goes. Everybody knows. A lot of people are feeling that way right now. A lot of people have felt that way since the dawn of time. Just because we know what is, however, doesn’t mean we don’t, or can’t, know what could be.

I sing for what is. But I also sing for what is possible.

I am grieving and am in spiritual agony. It’s not just what happened Tuesday. It’s the soul level pain that seems to be permeating our world right now. It’s the waves of fear and hurt that fed into everything that happened before Tuesday and laid groundwork for any and all fear based decisions yet to come. If only compassion and love could be our soul level drivers. That is the work that is necessary. It was necessary regardless of what happened in our election.

Leonard Cohen is gone, but his memories – and beautiful words – live on. Our veterans stand tall and proud (at least metaphorically) for that which is best in all of us – the desire to put everything on the line for a grander vision of what could be. I salute and honor them, today and every day. Our new President elect has many times spoken like a divider, not a uniter. I hope his actions lean the opposite way. Love cannot be illegal. People cannot be illegal. That may not have been the view from Trump Tower. I hope it is the view from the White House.

Cohen said: “It doesn't matter what you do because it's going to happen anyway.” Maybe he’s right. But I don’t believe it. I choose to put my faith in Martin Luther King, when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Slowly but surely, for thousands of years, it has. Perhaps Tuesday represents a setback, perhaps it doesn’t. We will have to wait and see and, of course, work with all the beautiful, hopeful, creative energy we have to ensure it doesn’t. But it isn’t the first setback and it won’t be the last. Like our veterans, our eye is on the long arc that bends toward justice.

And while, as Leonard Cohen once said, “Reality is one of the possibilities I cannot afford to ignore,” neither is the hope for something better.

We may have lost Tuesday. And we may have lost Leonard. But hope never dies.

There’s a crack in everything, but that’s how the light gets in.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

If Any Matter, All Matter

Black lives matter is not rhetoric, not an empty promise that fades from our collective consciousness like a piece of candy, or like an ad for one more product our already over consumptive material world needs like another bullet hole.

Black lives matter is not a slogan, a flag we can wave on Independence Day while we barbecue in the backyard, play by the pool, and neglect to think for even one moment why it is we are here, celebrating in the first place.

Black lives matter is not a calling card, an emblem that we whip out when it suits our needs or when something happens (again) or when we start forgetting (again) because our attention spans can no longer extend beyond a story, or an event, or even a moment.

Black lives matter is simply a reality that ebbs and flows, like the tide, from this existence. It is not debatable, nor is it cause for the venomous hatred it has inspired. Nor is it necessary.

Or at least it shouldn't be.

Saying black lives matter is like saying air matters, or water, or soil, or food. It is like saying that earth matters. Interesting, that each is under some form of attack, almost beyond and outside the recognition that their mattering should be so obvious that the words needn't be spoken.

Alas, that is not the world we occupy. And as long as things that matter are attacked as if they don't, the obvious must be reiterated and the unnecessary must again become necessary.

Black lives matter means nothing more than all lives matter. But, as anyone paying attention knows, that broader generalization misses the most critical point. Because no one questions whether white lives matter. No one gets rewarded for snuffing out a white life. No one gets paid leave and 'not guilty' verdicts raining down upon our world like a flood. No one gets immunity, ever, for ending an unarmed white life. 

The reality of which really makes black lives matter a reminder, as if we'd somehow forgotten the lesson we finally seemed to learn. A lesson that took us four hundred years to learn; took less than forty to forget.

Beautiful man, you matter. You matter like your brother standing on the corner selling cd's, your cousin walking down the street in his hoodie, your friend who teaches kids with autism, your neighbor who got locked up last week for stealing bread. You matter like my son and my daughter. You matter like the leathered brown man working the fields, the still unsuspecting yellow man sitting in internment camp, the black father floating his family on a perilous raft to a mirage across the sea.

Your words matter. The love that pours from your heart matters. The music and vision and desires and hopes and dreams that you not only mold, like clay, but share with the world, matter. You share them in Sedona, safe and secure and separate from the rest of the world. You share them in Providence, fraught with fear that you'll get shot for legally refusing to share your name after an illegal and unnecessary police stop. You share it in a world that is confused, looking for reminders that this is not the way it is supposed to be. The love you share is one piece of that bigger story, that fabric that lives and breathes and undulates in all directions, searching for a place to grab hold and explode like the most beautiful light ever created.

You matter where black lives matter, you matter where all lives matter, you matter where everything that matters, matters. You are more than a survivor filled with unearned guilt. More than a hash tag. More than a single life, winding your way through this existence. You are part of a collective, and not just the one in Sedona. Part of the collective that is this existence.

You are as vital as every other piece of this fabric. The void of your loss would begin an unraveling that would not cease until there was nothing left. Just like the void left by Delrawn, Alton, Philando, Michael, Trayvon, Eric, Tamir, Tony, Walter, Freddie, and countless other strands of this beautiful fabric that we are helplessly watching unravel before us. But we are not helpless.

They matter. You matter. If any of us are to matter, then all of us must. It's time to put down our guns and hashtags and lift our needles and thread. We have so much work to do.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Race and Class: Shhhhh

A President has no choice, really. Not every President does it and few do it well. But that doesn't mean it's not a critical part of the job description: demonstrating leadership, cheerleading, team building, calls for unity, and yes, reminding us of our commonalities - all are vital components of a successful leader.

We need a leader who can try to bring us all together when things are falling apart and we are in a pretty scary place right now. So thank you for trying. “As painful as this week has been,” President Obama said, “I firmly believe that America is not as divided as some have suggested.”

But then the President goes on to say that the “demented” individual who committed this atrocity is no more representative of African Americans than white criminals are of white people or Muslim killers are of Islam. I agree, mostly.

One might ask themselves why people of color in this country sometimes have a strong desire to revolt, and not necessarily peacefully, against people who continue to abuse their class and race based privilege. Why some people break. Why people get frustrated when the rest of us neglect to work, daily and in all ways possible, to reduce the class and race based injustice that continues to persevere in the United States.  And if we are honest, the things that we collectively embrace (the national anthem, the Apple Store, the Superbowl, and lattes) are probably insufficient to weather the storm of poverty, injustice, racism, and inequality.

So yes, it is laudable and worth ongoing mention that we have a lot in common and, generally speaking, do not create a war, riot, or violent protest every time something goes wrong. But there is foment smoldering and nothing can stop it other than a bigger change than the one we are making.

The frequency with which unarmed black men are getting shot by police is a symptom, not a cause. Homelessness, a lack of good paying middle class jobs, and the reality that the only promise we are willing to make is that we will house and feed and clothe every single American as long as they commit a crime. Otherwise, they are on their own. Then add eviction, brutality, and endemic societal racism. Focus your lens on these problems, these every day occurrences that are happening on our streets and in our cities; the brutal reality that faces literally countless families in our country. Then zoom the lens out, to the macro level, and focus on the unarmed black man who was killed last week, the one killed yesterday, and the one killed today. Or the steady stream of verdicts, one after another that mirror each unnecessary and unjust killing: not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.

Let us each put ourselves in these shoes for a moment and make an honest, real attempt to imagine the world from that perspective.

Violence only begets more violence and that will never be the answer. If someone is resorting to killing, there is something wrong with them, period. What if they have tried and tried and tried and simply cannot find a path to justice or equality for themselves, their family, their community, or their race. If things don’t change, will a growing number come to the same conclusion that they have no other choice, that the only way to create the change that is absolutely needed in our country, is to perpetuate the endless violence?

If we don’t want to find out, we may need to acknowledge that while our similarities are pretty special and worth noting, our differences are real and profound. And far too little is happening to ensure the former outweighs the latter.

Leadership, yes, absolutely, comes in the form of cheerleading. But it also comes in the form of saying that which is incredibly hard to say, but needs to be said. President Obama has done as much on this front as any President in a generation, but today, his comments were not enough. It’ll take more than words and a pom pom to heal these wounds.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Rickert and Race

Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert, in an April 7th column about Madison’s Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition (YGB), should have stopped after the first sentence: Madison’s struggle for racial equity does, indeed, call for radical action. The remainder of his article, however, misses the mark.
Rickert’s basic conclusions are that 1) YGB operates outside the bounds of realism, 2) YGB calls for reduced policing in Madison’s low income black communities is a non-starter, 3) “Among the establishment” there is praise for YGB’s passion, but no enthusiasm for their proposed solutions, 4) That disparities in incarceration rates are not based on a racist system because MPD is racially diverse and because the DA is black.
Where to begin.
In “The Case for Reparations,” published in the Atlantic in June of last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates make the case that liberals, perhaps even those “establishment” liberals Rickert refers to in his article, “view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality.” In other words, because most whites in the US believe we have evolved into a post-racial society, progressives have perhaps concluded that today's civil rights battle is over class and not race.
I agree with Coates. As Lyndon Johnson said in his infamous 1965 civil rights speech at Howard University, “negro poverty is not white poverty.” It has been 50 years since that speech, and the reality is stark: while income and wealth gaps remain very real and significant hurdles in our march toward equality, the gap between black and white continues to loom even larger. And, as Coates notes, it is because the United States has basically been built upon 400 years of systematic, societally sanctioned, preference for white people.
Contrary to the beliefs of those ready to move on, the problem did not end with slavery or even Jim Crow. In the lifetimes of many still alive we, through our US federal government, developed, implemented and maintained policies that not only created a seemingly impenetrable wealth gap, but also actively targeted and literally prevented wealth creation by black people who were trying to succeed. And as if that’s not recent enough history, one needn't look further than banking industry policies as recently as 2008 that were developed, in the words of the Justice Department, to target subprime, predatory loans toward black people and black communities. Policies that not only once again stole the dream of homeownership from millions of black Americans, but simultaneously caused a Great Recession for all but the very wealthiest among us.
So, back to Chris Rickert’s concerns.
First, that YGB operates outside the bounds of realism. Exactly what realism does he mean? The realism of slavery, Jim Crow, separate but equal, or government sanctioned racist housing policies? The realism of our "too big to fail" banks engaging in predatory behavior as recently as 7 years ago? The realism of St. Louis area police departments committing a "pattern of civil rights violations" and "practice of conduct that violates the 1st, 4th, and 14th amendments" as recently as last year? Or just the realism of unarmed black men getting choked or shot in the back by police?
Second, Rickert's contention that YGB calls for reduced policing in black communities is a non-starter. As I wrote in my last blog article, “It’s Time for Peace Officers,” the issue is not whether reduced policing is a good idea or not. The issue is that so many low income black communities feel that a police presence does nothing to increase their safety and security. That lack of trust in our police should, at the very least concern all of us, and, if we’re honest, help us understand a little better why an unarmed black men being encountered by police might think it best to do anything other than freeze and put their hands on their heads.
I don’t even know where to start with the “establishment.” The establishment, as we all know, literally has no clue how to handle the racial issues with which we are confronted. (But I am glad we keep trying.) Between a half-century of social programs, new policies, equal opportunity clauses, and supposedly post-racist harmony, one would think we’d have made more progress than we have. The establishment, which has tried just about everything and come up generally empty in making significant improvements, could do worse than listening to some ideas from outside the wall.
With all we now know about incarceration disparities, it is astonishing that anyone would say that they have nothing to do with racism. A racially diverse police force, a black DA, even a black President of the United States does not somehow magically undo 400 years of racism. Madison is still part of the United States and shares this history. Wishing it away is not the same as taking it away. While Madison may not breed overtly racist leaders, that does not in and of itself remove the very real barriers that black people continue to face in our city.
In his article, Coates is making the case for reparations. He states, “What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

Chris Rickert may be right: a national reckoning may be unrealistic (perhaps because of the same “establishment” he claims can’t get behind YGB). But it may, in fact, be our only hope.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

It's Time for Peace Officers

I have had so many conflicting thoughts since I heard that Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a Madison Police Officer. My first thought was, “no, not again. Please not in our city.” My second thought was a much more depressing one. It was resignation. Attendance at Madison's first "Writers for Justice" event last Saturday, March 28th, finally gave me space to write about it.

When I first ran for alder, in 2007, creating awareness about “two Madison’s” and finding solutions to help us converge upon a path toward a more just and unified city was my motivation for running. “Two Madison’s” has now become the rallying cry of many elected representatives. Watching and listening as Madison public officials finally talk about equal opportunity, race issues, incarceration rates, homelessness, living wages, and justice as real issues that exist in our community has given me a sense of hope.

But then I think back to late night council debates where we declared war on homeless people instead of homelessness, where we closed entertainment venues that were frequented by people of color, where we increased bus fares, failed to raise the minimum wage or pass paid sick leave, and, finally, where we added 30 police officers in an emotional, politically expedient but not well thought out response to one neighborhood locked in fear of an “emerging, Chicago-based criminal element.” So despite our improving rhetoric, there remains a canyon between what we say and what we do.

My thoughts draw back to a wider angle as I seek to view the events nationally or even globally. And when I do that, I remember this is how it has always been. From serfs to slavery to Jim Crow, the poor, the marginalized, and people of color have been systematically mistreated, lynched, burned, dehumanized, and left to whither on the vine with relatively little in the way of guilt, shame, or a cultural rebuke by the privileged who have always and continue to benefit from systems of oppression.

My next thought was to look at more recent history. Real change grew from the seeds of the civil rights movement a half century ago, but it should not be a surprise that these issues still haunt us (sadly, in both memory and reality) as they are rooted in the consciousness of a nation still a mere instant removed from slavery or societally sanctioned race based discrimination. And so, as I look back from a historical perspective, I find myself unsurprised.

October 14th, 1982 was a watershed moment: the day that Ronald Reagan called drugs a threat to national security and declared war upon them. That one day, arguably more than any other in the constantly evolving history of our nation, profoundly changed everything that has happened since. If we consider the ripple effects of that day along with our societal unwillingness to address the root causes of racism, crime, and intergenerational poverty, combined with our increasing fascination with violence and guns and the militarization of our police forces, Tony Robinson’s death shouldn’t surprise us. Nor should the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, or the countless others that don’t get national media attention or often do not even get reported.

When we string racism, poverty, drug wars, media coverage, the prevalence of guns, three strikes legislation, a corrections system that prioritizes everything but, and militarized police forces together, it seems predictable that shootings like these are so common.

I am not sure our species has ever known true justice, so defining it is a certainly a challenge. One way to approach a definition is to look at another word with which we have more familiarity: injustice. A single mom working three jobs at minimum wage and not having money to house or feed her children; the countless number of homeless people who apply for job after job and cannot find work; an ex-offender who has served his time and cannot even get a job interview or find an apartment; the redlining policies of the last generation that robbed African Americans of a fair chance at economic equality; or a black man getting discriminated against, profiled, or shot and killed because of the color of his skin – all are situations that most can agree feel at some level like an absence of justice.

But this story is not about injustice in all its manifestations. This story is about police killing unarmed black men. In particular, this is my attempt to make sense of the death of a 19-year old boy on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember my two hour conversation with Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, during a council budget debate, over whether it made sense to add 30 new police rather than investing those dollars in measures that could attack the root causes of crime. I remember the numerous interactions I had with him and his officers during my six years in office. I always came away with the same conclusion: the Madison Police Department was, in all likelihood, about as good as it gets when it comes to policing in the 21st century United States.

They believe in community policing and neighborhood officers and most of the concepts necessary to build trust in challenged areas. Despite that, a common reaction of struggling, mostly minority neighborhoods in Madison following the Tony Robinson shooting? That they would be better off without police. We have not even approached the starting gate if the people most likely to encounter police, and those most likely to need their assistance, have that belief.

Police Officers have incredibly difficult jobs in a frightening society filled with guns and people with the capacity for violent behavior. And that is why this issue will never be resolved if it is somehow over-simplified into merely white against black, police against general public, or armed against unarmed.

In order to make real progress, we must deal with the root causes of everything behind these realities: from media coverage to race relations to the drug war to gun control to incarceration techniques. But if we want to table all those massive changes for a moment, and zoom into ground zero on the police issue itself, then there is really little choice in what we need to do: demilitarize our police forces, transform police officers into members of the community, prioritize relationships and trust building with the people they represent, and make sure police departments know their primary purpose is to value and honor and dignify every human with whom they have contact.

Officers should be hired, trained, promoted, and rewarded to that end. As challenging as their jobs are, we simply must have police that honor all the people for whom they work. If there is a shooting, it should always be due to a circumstance that left the officer no other choice. None. If there is a killing, it must be because deadly force was the only option. And both the justification and circumstances behind all shootings must be run through the transparent filter of sunlight for the entire community to see. Because not only should police shootings of unarmed citizens be so rare as to be almost unheard of, but in the rare instance where they do occur, there should be one and only one priority: ensuring that the community does not lose faith and trust in its police. We need to expand beyond community policing and neighborhood officers: we need to evolve to a place where the term police officer is synonymous with peace officer.

Imagine a Madison where everyone in our City sees MPD as an active and engaged part of the solution. While the march toward actual justice will sadly require a matrix of complicated choreography, eliminating police killings of unarmed black men would represent a pretty profound first step.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mental Illness Killed Robin Williams

When someone dies of lung cancer, the headlines never read: “John Doe commits suicide by a lifetime of smoking.” When an overweight person dies of a heart attack, no one comments on how, “Jane Doe killed herself by overeating.”

So why, when someone with mental illness commits suicide, do we walk a path we’d consider an absolute atrocity in any other situation? Because, even though we all know better, we continue to treat mental illness differently than physical illness. Robin Williams chose to die no more than a smoker dying of cancer or a person with weight issues succumbing to a heart attack. One could even argue that Williams was less able to chart his own course given the insidiousness of mental illness.

There are an estimated 10 million Americans with some form of serious mental illness, according to the National Institutes for Mental Health. Serious mental illness means a significant impairment that “substantially” interferes with or limits at least one major life activity. Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like cancer or diabetes or asthma or MS or any other physical impairment that our 
society would take seriously and treat as a disease.

I've read many statements about Williams’ death, including “by his own hand,” “apparent suicide,” and “killed himself, leaving a loving family behind.” These statements each presume that there was a choice in the matter, that Robin Williams sat in his favorite chair, poured himself a cup of tea, and went through a logic-based analysis of whether his family, the world, and he himself would be better off with him continuing this life or not. I've not seen a single article, from any major news source, that focused on the presumption that Williams had fallen victim to his illness, as if he’d had cancer or heart disease.

Psychology is still too-often called a pseudo-science because there is so much more subjectivity in it than in other medical fields. But we have come to accept depression, bipolar, obsessive compulsive, and alcoholism as real diseases and most of us have friends, family members, or co-workers who have suffered from these. So we not only know that they exist and are real; we also know how debilitating they can be. And while we shake our fists in rage and lose patience at our loved-ones, wondering why they can’t just “pull out of it,” we also know, at a core level, that it’s not their fault.

So if we know, why can’t we invest more resources into better understanding something that affects as many as 22 million Americans each year? And why can’t we eliminate the stigma that still surrounds people suffering from mental illness like a storm cloud? If we can develop a strategy to decrease stigma for people suffering from breast cancer or HIV, we can certainly do it for mental illness as well.

Maybe Robin Williams, one of the kindest and funniest men in our generation, can be the spark that lights this fuse. And maybe next time, the headlines will read, “Robin Williams, 63, succumbs after a valiant fight against mental illness.” And we’ll all know it wasn't a choice.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Middle East Ripple Effects

On July 23rd, 2014, Jews in France were threatened and looted because of Israeli actions against Palestinians over 4500 kilometers away. While Jews continue to face discrimination in many places, they are seldom attacked en masse as they were in France. Could this be the beginning of a new international trend where Jews worldwide begin paying the price for, if not the reality, at least the perception of how Israel treats Palestinians?

More compelling, could events like this result in Israel finally realizing that its actions, justified or not, are resulting in a perception that it can no longer afford to ignore?

This is not about Israel’s right to exist or international support for a Jewish state. However, while most agree that Hamas is a terrorist organization, far too many sadly now believe the same about Israel.

It is a terrible reality that most of Israel’s closest neighbors loathe its existence and have national platforms calling for its destruction. Hamas’ own charter specifically indicates that “Israel will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it.”

Because of that, Israel’s intense focus about its own survival is justified on any level and their instincts to defend themselves simply cannot be called “morally unacceptable.” But their policies can and should be questioned, especially given the mounting numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties. And while Hamas is at least as much to blame as Israel for those casualties, Israel aspires to be better than that. More on that later.

As Ali Rizvi recently wrote, it is no longer just speculation that Hamas puts its own citizens in harm’s way. Hamas own spokesperson called the human shield strategy “very effective.” And effective it has been, because Israel is now being perceived as sanctioning civilian casualties.

What France reminded us is that the Jewish homeland is now the entire planet. When threats to Jewish people living in Europe start escalating into episodes not seen there since World War II, it should cause very serious concern to everyone.

Israel: Even if you are in the right, you are not being perceived that way. And if Jews throughout the world start suffering because of your policy decisions, that might be a signal it really is time to try something different. Followers of a religion are getting blamed and punished for the behavior of a nation on whose ground the vast majority have never stood.

Combine this with the hard-to-ignore reality that a half-century long generally unchanging strategy of national defense has failed to achieve peace. While it is not fair or right to blame Israel solely for this reality, it remains, nonetheless, reality.

Ripple effects that can no longer be ignored have collided with the definition of insanity.

It is time for a Palestinian state. There is simply no other solution that takes not only the Palestinians (and the support they have all over the world) into account, but also the Israelis themselves and, now, Jews throughout the world as well. Support for a two state solution is not synonymous with support for Hamas.

What is the difference between a peace treaty with Hamas leading Palestinians and a peace treaty with Hamas leading Palestine? If the State of Palestine attacked Israel, the international community would have no choice but to support Israel and, perhaps, increase internal support for Fatah instead of Hamas. When a bunch of poor, starving, Palestinians fight for their freedom, and die by the thousands, the choice is far more ambiguous.

It is never easy to hold oneself to a higher standard, especially when surrounded by others who will exploit it. But as the US has learned through the Iraq invasion and the torture discussions of the last decade, one wrong move by a nation who aspires to be better can obliterate its claims to the moral high ground.

Like the US, Israel holds itself to a higher standard. But innocent civilians keep dying and the perception of blame continues to shift. And if July 23rd becomes a common theme rather than a solitary event, maybe Israel will start looking at other solutions and finally find a way to lead the way to a lasting peace.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

All Talk?

There seems to be a growing opinion that Barack Obama is all talk and no more. As a longtime community organizer, a Harvard Law School graduate, the former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a state senator, and a US Senator, one would think most people would recognize the likelihood that there is some substance behind the speeches.

However, if that is not sufficient to convince you, I offer you this.

There are some minor differences, but in general, Hillary and Barack are fairly close on policy issues. They are both smart, driven, committed to their cause, and solid, if not splendid, representatives of their party’s philosophical ideal. As has every political candidate in history, both offer a plethora of ideas, suggestions, platforms, policy suggestions, and recommendations on where they’d like to take the country. But let’s be realistic. Governance in this country is not about recommendations in the end. It is not about saying you will get things done. It is not about making promises that we all know will have to go through a long process of vetting and compromise before becoming reality.

The ideas are out there and, honestly, being President is not all that hard. There are a number of tough decisions and the current President has mostly made the wrong ones. Both Hillary and Barack will both make the right decisions with far more regularity. So if their decisionmaking capabilities and policy positions are about the same, how do we decide?We decide based on this: the reality in this country is that relationships, compromise, and the ability to work with others, build consensus, and bring people along with you are by far the biggest indicators of political – and Presidential -- success. This is where Obama excels and how he differentiates himself from Hillary and most other people on earth.

And why, in the end, he’ll be a more successful president, regardless of what he says, or doesn’t say, now.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

DMI and the Mayor

I’ve been reading recently about Downtown Madison, Inc. (DMI) and the failure of their organization to make an endorsement in the Mayor’s race. I wanted to respond to this criticism as a candidate for City Council who recently went through their interview and endorsement process. Entering this race, I was completely unprepared for the number of questionnaires, interviews, forums, and organizations whose endorsement I’d need to solicit. The vast majority of these have been professional, dignified, and, despite being a great deal of work, have been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a considerable amount about the numerous organizations with which I’ll need to work if elected.

DMI’s process was among the very best in which I’ve participated. The questions were sent in advance, but I wasn’t required to submit written responses. I showed up at the agreed-upon time and found three DMI members and their president, Susan Schmitz, awaiting my arrival. It was more discussion than interview, more joint learning experience than one way interrogation. All four members of the panel were positive, responsive, and exceptionally professional. The questions were right on point and focused on real issues that matter to the vitality of downtown Madison.

I do not always agree with DMI but wholeheartedly support their mission to protect and enhance the central city of Madison -- the economic, cultural, and social hub of all south central Wisconsin. A vibrant inner city benefits the entire region, regardless of whether we live in Madison’s suburbs, in Middleton or Sun Prairie, or even if we live in Mount Horeb or Cambridge. That’s why I’m disappointed that DMI was unable to support Mayor Dave despite his hard work and effectiveness on many downtown issues important to the entire region.

However, DMI’s endorsement process, like that of other organizations, is democratic among its members. Its members should voice their concerns and vote their conscience, and there is little that an “organization” can do if its members are unable to generate the votes necessary to make an endorsement. Obviously, I can speak only to one aspect of the DMI endorsement process (my interview), and on that part, DMI definitely got it right.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thanks and Giving

It had been less than 24 hours since we’d finished unpacking from our trip to Minneapolis, and here we were, repacking the unfathomable, ridiculously immense pile of stuff necessary for our five-day trip to St. Louis. I paused to consider this pile that was stretching skyward and wondered how two adults, a three-year-old, and a one-year-old could possibly need this much. I shrugged it off, acknowledging that “madness” is quite likely the most appropriate term to describe not only holidays in 21st century America but, quite possibly, 21st century America period.

Our small station wagon was hopelessly claustrophobic as the four of us, surrounded by the scores of keep-the-children-fed-and-entertained-at-all-costs supplies, wound our way through the six-and-one-half-hour journey southward. Other than two straight hours of screaming by our three-year-old in a not-so-subtle attempt to wake the one year old, it was a relatively pleasant, albeit challenging, drive.

Like most things in our 21st century American lives, our holidays have changed. Other than Christmas, Thanksgiving has arguably undergone the most significant metamorphosis. Christmas has changed from a celebration of the birth of Christ into, for many, a consumer driven abyss. Thanksgiving has little to do, sadly, with giving thanks, and much more to do with the voracious consumption of an unlucky pig, turkey, duck, or some grisly combination of all three. And, of course, watching football and preparing for Black Friday (otherwise known as “The Biggest Shopping Day of the Year”).


One needn’t look far, regardless of where one lives, to witness the devastating horror of hunger. There are the well-known statistics: Almost a billion people on earth are hungry. Sixteen thousand children die from hunger related causes every single day (6 million per year). There are the less known statistics: 54 nations (most in sub-Saharan Africa) do not produce enough food to feed their population. In the United States, almost 40 million Americans, including 14 million children, are insecure about sufficient food at any given time.

We have seen the media-provided images of starvation from other countries; we have read the news about huge increases in food pantry usage in the U.S. over the last several years (America’s Second Harvest reports that emergency food assistance increased 8% between 2001 and 2004, up to 25 million people per year). In the most resource-rich, open-market, global-community based existence in human history, one must wonder how it is possible we have made so little progress.


I am a vegetarian, and have been for almost seventeen years. I am a vegetarian for a number of reasons, but as the holiday season rolls around, it gives me pause to stop and remember some of the bigger ones: those pertaining to equality, hunger, and sustainability.

Animals raised for food are fed more than 70% of the grains that the U.S. produces. It takes 22 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of meat. The Earth’s meat animals, alone, consume food equivalent to the caloric needs of nine billion people. Some studies estimate that the world produces, currently, enough vegetarian food to feed 15 billion people. 1.4 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans we feed U.S. cattle alone.

Food distribution logistics and political in-fighting can explain a portion of this problem, but cannot be held solely responsible. In fact, as we move more quickly toward a free-trade, open-market, the-world-is-flat economy, where most experts agree that the old barriers to the movement of goods and services no longer exist, it is increasingly misleading, or at least ignorant, to use this argument.

Or, perhaps, it is merely more convenient.


I enjoyed two days at home sandwiched between my trip to Minneapolis and St Louis. On the second of them, the day before leaving, I received an email from, an organization dedicated to the eradication of hunger, poverty, and AIDS. I am a member because, while this global plight often seems so astonishingly overwhelming that many of us choose to ignore it, there is simply no excuse, given the vast quantity of resources currently consumed and wasted on this planet, that humans have yet to attack this issue with the vigor applied to war, weapons development, or the search for oil.

The email called for a Thanksgiving fast to raise awareness and consciousness of this reality. If 20 people attended Thanksgiving dinner, three were to sit comfortably at the table feasting on everything. Six were to sit in uncomfortable chairs, eating rice and beans with a spoon. And nine were to sit on mats, eating rice with their fingers. I needn’t explain the symbolism behind this approach.

I perform a water-fast twice a year, for four to seven days each, in order to remind myself how fortunate I am to have enjoyed a lifetime of worry-free access to unlimited food. One in six people on earth, approximately one billion people, do not. Because of this experience, I immediately appreciate the significance of this simple idea from

At the same time, I knew that the idea was unlikely to be embraced warmly by my family, despite their very real understanding and concern about all of these issues. Instead of trying to persuade them, I decided to conjure an alternative. My semi-annual fast is usually a quiet event, practiced with little fanfare unless it cannot be avoided. It is an internal act more than an external statement. More like deep breathing, less like full-bore protest. But it works for me. Despite being in my tenth year of fasting, I do not ever break fast without a renewed appreciation for food, a simple thing that most of us, including myself, often take for granted.

This time, however, a water fast seemed insufficient. So, somewhere in the midst of this six-hour drive to St. Louis, I decided what I was going to do. I would spend the entire day with my family cooking and serving and watching football. And I’d not eat or drink a single thing – between dinner the night before and breakfast the morning after (a morning, by the way, my family prefers to celebrate as buy-nothing day rather than Black Friday).

I knew my grandmother would appreciate what I was doing but would not be happy about it. So, on Thanksgiving morning, I asked my parents and wife to not mention anything to my grandmother. I wasn’t sure how I’d break the news, but wanted to stall for as long as humanly possible.

Somehow, I managed to get through breakfast unscathed. Perhaps it was the ridiculous feast that was rolling towards us like a slow avalanche, but breakfast was eaten on the fly. No one even noticed that I didn’t partake. There was no such thing as lunch, in the traditional sense. In the modern holiday sense, it was exactly what one would expect. Lunch consisted of 15 mini-courses scattered throughout the afternoon: a handful of this, a piece of that, a couple bites of this, a quick snack of that. Again, it was relatively simple to slip through this world unnoticed.

Meanwhile, throughout it all, we cooked. It was already decided that this Thanksgiving would be a vegetarian one. I was very proud of my turkey-craving family for their sacrifice. Going vegetarian, of course, is quite different than going hungry. We had green bean casserole, a tofurkey, gravy, potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade stuffing, salad, pumpkin pie, wine, beer, and lots of other goodies. I was in the kitchen the entire time – cooking, stirring, preparing, baking, mixing, and smelling. Everything the holiday cook would normally do, except tasting.

Despite all my experience, this wasn’t easy. Football was on in the background, snacks were everywhere, and it was Thanksgiving. Parts of me I forgot existed were screaming, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” Eventually, they got desperate: “At least drink some water!” The fast crystallized the magnitude of a reality I was sad, but forced to acknowledge: Thanksgiving really was about food. That was it. Everything else came in a distant second.

Finally, the table was set and the food was being carted in, platter after platter. My mother let it slip, and the secret was out.

I asked my grandmother if she was upset. “How can I be mad when I know why you are doing this? I wish you were eating, but I understand and am proud of you.”

Wow, cool.


The next day, my mother and I were in the car together. “It was really hard to eat last night with you fasting. I know you are doing this for yourself, but you really should think about the impact your actions have on others.”

“Mom, I told you to just pretend I was eating.”

“I know, but that didn’t really work. I kept looking at you and seeing your empty plate. And it made it really hard to eat. I still managed to do it, but it was hard.”

“Well, maybe there’s something to that, mom. Maybe it’s okay that it was hard. Because Thanksgiving isn’t really about going without, it’s about appreciating what you have. If you struggled to eat, maybe you thought a little harder about how lucky you were to have the food that you did have. I’m okay with that.”

And so was she.

But really, it’s not just Thanksgiving. It’s every day. Because it is easy to think about a billion people going hungry and decide there’s nothing we can do about it. But the reality is that we can. We can eat lower down the food chain and demand more sustainable agriculture. We can demand that our elected officials take this humanitarian crisis seriously. And we can stop, even for a second, and think about how fortunate we are to live in a time where we don’t have to worry about access to food, and where we can actually do something to help those who do.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The "Needless" Agenda of Justice

I first met Austin King during the sick leave debate. I was a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the lead committee on this proposed ordinance. I knew of him, of course, but had never actually met him. He talked to the EOC about why sick leave was an equal opportunity issue. I had some questions, so pulled him aside afterward. Here is the President of the Madison City Council, late on a Thursday evening, cornered by some nobody with questions. He answered every one of them, and didn’t once make me feel as though he had somewhere else to be. I promised to follow-up with an email, which I did. Again, he answered my questions thoughtfully -- not with platitudes or prepared responses, but with specific answers, custom-developed to my questions.

It was hard to have anything but good feelings for this guy. One can certainly argue the merits of a minimum wage increase or mandated sick leave for workers. But one cannot argue, as a January 3rd editorial in the State Journal did, that Austin King has been “ineffective… steering the council into draining and needless fights.”

It may indeed be draining, but it is never “needless” to advance the agenda of poverty, injustice, and inequality. The State Journal editorial argued that state and federal leaders should control these issues, not local alderman. The key word is “leaders.” Because, in an absence of leadership, there are only two paths. The first path is one in which everyone says this is not my problem and effortlessly transfers accountability, and its resultant inaction, to someone else. The second path requires someone, somewhere, to vocalize that there is a problem, demand action, and actually advance an agenda for resolution.

I hope it is mere coincidence that, two weeks before our national celebration of Martin Luther King's desire for a more just world, an editorial would call the advancement of such an agenda "needless."

There are too many excuses in our world. When a solution is offered at the local level, critics counter we are “creating an island.” When a solution is offered at the state level, “unlevel playing field” charges are asserted. When a solution is offered at the national level, it is nothing more than isolationism, protectionism, and standing in the way of free trade and advancement of the global economy. It is so easy to tolerate injustice, because it is so easy to shift blame elsewhere.

Levels of government don’t matter, nor do excuses. When someone stands up and offers solutions, it is never needless. Do you want to honor Martin Luther King's legacy? This is how we do it. Austin King will likely go to law school, graduate, and get elected Senator. If we’re lucky, it’ll be from Wisconsin. Until then, may we be fortunate enough to have strong, passionate voices for those who normally have none.

Upholding the Constitution

It is a rare moment when I find myself in agreement with Juliane Appling, President of the Family Research Institute. In fact, I can't think of a single occasion. Until now. In a January 18 article in the LA Times, Ms. Appling was interviewed regarding her opinion of the recently passed supplement to the oath of office, allowing Madison officials, after taking the oath, to vocalize their dissatisfaction with the recently passed amendment banning same sex marriage. Ms. Appling is quoted as saying, "This is a trashing of democracy. Officers have to uphold the Constitution. They don't get to pick and choose." I couldn't agree more. And that is why I am hopeful, based on the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause (contained within the 14th amendment), that Ms. Appling will begin work immediately to overturn the ban on same-sex marriages that she fought so hard to pass last November.

There is relatively little question that the recently passed amendment is unconstitutional and that it is inevitable it will be overturned. In the meantime, it is a shame that Ms. Appling is more concerned with a non-binding, supplementary statement that Madisonians can voluntarily choose to include following their oath of office, than with taking action on her eloquently stated desire to uphold the Constitution.

I never imagined that she and I could work together toward a common goal, but I now find myself prepared to do so. "Uphold the Constitution." Sign me up: it sounds like a really good idea.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Fifty three percent

Fifty three percent is such a modest number. Just barely more than half; just a slight majority. It represents dramatic improvement over what likely would have been a much higher number just a decade ago. Which makes me wonder. Are we forcing a vote now, on gay marriage and on reinstating the death penalty, not because of our fear of activist judges, but because of our fear that the tide is changing and that if we fail to act now, we'll not get another chance?

Support is dwindling, and it's only a matter of time before we all wake up and realize that the death penalty and restrictions on marriage both blatantly violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Recent polls suggest that about 53% of Wisconsinites support both a ban on gay marriage and reinstatement of the death penalty. One wonders if they are the same 53%.

I am so proud that Wisconsin was the first state to create unemployment compensation, create workers compensation, and outlaw discrimination against women. This historical record is one of the primary reasons I moved here from the east coast. We have the rarest of opportunities on November 7th to lead again. To show the world that Wisconsin is fair, just, and stands boldly as a leader in the fight against discrimination. It is such an exciting, once in a generation opportunity, I can barely contain my enthusiasm.

Fifty three percent. It almost makes me want to take a leave of absence from my job and family and go door to door. To shake some sense back into the Wisconsinites who've let rhetoric and fear drown out what they know is right.

Homosexuality is not illegal. We have committed, loving, same sex couples living right now in our state. Paying taxes, working, raising children. This is a fact. How could anyone, anyone, not want to support such families, support their children, and ensure that they have the same rights conferred upon the rest of us? It's not like passage of this referendum is going to break apart these families, though I'm not sure that's what anyone would want anyway. Are we really feeling that threatened? If we pass this referendum, nothing will have changed, nothing, other than our constitutional confirmation of the second class status of thousands of families throughout our state. What will we say on the night of November 7th, as we tuck our own children into bed? "Yeah! We did it. We just ensured that two loving, committed members of a family can't visit each other in the hospital. We just ensured that, should one of the parents die, the other will have a difficult time raising her own children." Is this really going to make us feel better? Is this really supportive of family values?

The death penalty has been illegal in Wisconsin for 153 years. For one and a half centuries, we've had the good sense to realize that we as a society must rise above heinous acts of violence while simultaneously deploring those same acts. We have talked the talk (violence is wrong) and we have walked the walk (we will thus not engage in it). We know for a fact that a black man is four times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man. We know for a fact that a poor man is infinitely more likely than a rich man. We know that the death penalty is more expensive (two to six times) and does not serve as a deterrent. So we reinstate the death penalty. Do we feel better? We haven't helped anything - haven't saved any dollars, prevented more crime, or instituted some new radical reform. Only two things will have changed. First, we will have validated that an eye for an eye is a just solution in an advanced democracy. Second, we will have appropriated authority to decide when to apply the sixth commandment, that we shalt not kill.

I find myself growing increasingly depressed with each passing day. On November 7th, Wisconsin has the chance to lead, to demonstrate its commitment to equality, justice, and non-violence. To demonstrate its commitment to family values and moral leadership. To make me proud to be here and proud to raise my children here. I wish I could communicate with the fifty three percent... I wish I could beg them to think about this, to really think about it, and please not make November 7th a day we regret. Terrorism will still exist. Our air will still be dirty. Our schools will still have insufficient resources. We'll still worry about morals, values, equality, school shootings, and too much violence in our culture. And we'll all wake up on November 8th and continue to share our collective sadness that the world doesn't seem to be going in the right direction. The problem is, we will have just taken two pretty big steps further away from the world we really want.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Saturday Strategy

"Ignore them, they'll go away."

"It's not my problem."

"What can I do?"

"It's none of my business."

We use statements like these to justify our consistent lack of action. We close our eyes to a theftoccuring in front of us, silence our ears to the domestic abuse going on in the upstairs apartment, and seal our hearts to a billion impoverished people. Every single day, we wall ourselves off from that which occurs around us and hope, somewhere deep inside, that by ignoring the problem, it will somehow work itself out or disappear.

We employed a similar strategy as Hitler rose to power throughout Europe and didn't actually decide it was our issue until we were attacked on December 7th, 1941. We repeated the mistake with Saudi Arabia and all our other oil producing, communist fighting friends, until we were forced to act differently on September 11th, 2001.

I have read with great interest and admiration those who believe that ignoring the Nazi rally at the Capitol this Saturday is the appropriate strategy. Those who advocate for this solution are not dispassionate, uncaring, or disinterested. Many of them have spent every day of their lives actively fighting that which the Nazis promote. They have decided to stay home because one thing is certain: protesting will not change a Nazi's mind and in all likelihood, does nothing more than make them cling more tightly to that which they believe. In that regard, ignoring them achieves something powerful.

But I have also read with equal interest the opinions of those who would counter hate with an alternative message. There is something lost in this strategy, as increased attention is brought to a message that deserves none. But there is a reality regarding reaction -- the reaction of humans to those actions, behaviors, or statements that we know with absolute certainty are wrong. And that reality is messy, but it demands involvement. It demands a stand - a powerful, forceful, demonstration that says this horrible thing cannot be ignored, that it is our business, and that it is our problem.

Martin Niemoeller said it best: "When they came for the communists, I was silent, because I was not a communist; When they came for the socialists, I was silent, because I was not a socialist; When they came for the trade unionists, I did not protest, because I was not a trade unionist; When they came for the Jews, I did not protest, because I was not a Jew; When they came for me, there was no one left to protest on my behalf."

We cannot sit on the sidelines. It is only by releasing the water that we can drown out the voices of injustice and hate. This is not the easy path, and it comes frought with peril. But silence is unaccceptable. I will not hide in the corner as abuse, poverty, AIDS, and injustice ravages millions of people. And I will not stay home when messages of hate are blared through loudspeakers. I will stand, I will fight, I will protest, and I will cry out with the strength of all the blood in my veins: this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. There is only one way for you to truly know what I believe: you must hear me speak it.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Two Party System: Breaking the Cycle

My rage increases around election time, but it's really not limited to November. I know I am not alone in bemoaning our nation's two party system on an almost daily basis.

Most of us, of course, identify ourselves as Republicans, Democrats or independents, but the reality is that our two main parties can seldom encapsulate who we are and what we believe. I have Republican friends who can't stand the current state of affairs and are sage enough to blame their own party instead of nation-hating liberals.

I consider myself a progressive, but am often mystified at the proposals that come from liberal elitist factions within the Democratic Party.

Left or right, we are often able to come together in our desire for more choices. Many of us find ourselves, regardless of which candidate we support, voting for the lesser of two evils every November and wishing it weren't so. Is that really a democracy? One of the principle tenets of democracy is full information - without it, we are unable to make informed choices. This peripheral participation only increases our frustration and weakens our desire to partake in the process.

We disagree on how to handle the problem, but we all know that it comes down to money. Candidates in major parties are able to raise large sums of money. This allows them to get their message out, which makes them viable, increases their media coverage, which then amplifies their fundraising, which leads to events, which leads to more press, and so on and so on. It is a victory cycle for the established party candidate; a vicious cycle for the independent. In the end, it is the voters who lose.

Thank you, Judy Ettenhofer and The Capital Times, for breaking the cycle and running a story on Green Party candidate Rae Vogeler and her campaign for U.S. Senate. She may not win and not all of your readers may vote for her. But we learned that she has compassion, political skill, and experience. We learned that she is a caring wife, mother, worker and organizer who believes in quality education and tackling our health care crisis - real issues about which we all care. We learned that she is a quality candidate who deserves a chance to lock horns with our current senator for the chance to represent us.

The open and honest debate we all deserve may not happen, but the political process is richer, and we as citizens more engaged, when we have the opportunity to learn more about those who offer us the alternatives we crave, but seldom have the resources to make us aware of their presence.

(Article published, The Capital Times, 4/25/06)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

DC: Loathin' and Lovin'

I'm off the shuttle bus less than ten seconds before I remember how I can loathe and love this city so much in the exact same moment. Washington DC represents, possibly more than any other place on earth, the vast extremes of the human condition. Within its borders reside the most powerful people in the world, and the most powerless. The richest and the poorest. The most hopeful and the most hopeless. The most active, compassionate people in the history of humankind, and the most apathetic. Some of the most racist people on earth share space with a dozen races, a hundred ethnicities, and countless nationalities.

I drop my bag off in my hotel room and come back downstairs. There is a clothing store in the hotel; I walk in to check it out. Mens shirts are $140 each. I walk out disgusted. Onto the street and I'm immediately asked for change by a respectful man, back to the wall, cup in hand, with probably less than $140 to his name.

I walk toward the White House, the most powerful place on the planet, and see hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese protesting the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners being imprisoned and reportedly harvested for their internal organs in their native land. Dozens upon dozens of Chinese, sitting quietly cross legged, with their right arms bent in front of their chests, palms out and fingers facing skyward. Barely moving, they are the personification of peace and calm. Asking the White House to care about the gruesome inhumanities occurring within the borders of our number one trading partner.

A block further, a woman sits by the anti-nuclear signage that, for over twenty years, has passionately made its point and been dispassionately ignored.

I wonder how our government, with its vast resources, can quietly endure such suffering. I wonder how the President can look out his windows at what I am currently seeing, and not be outraged.

This city is a cathedral to freedom, a celebration of democracy. It is marble halls of exquisite beauty, parks of unparalled number, and tourists of unimaginable awe. But it is also walled gates that say, "do not enter." And it is fenced homes and mansion filled suburbs, looking inward at inescapable poverty, crumbling schools, struggling families, and, perhaps worst of all, a black hole sized vacuum of hope.

When hope is lost, freedom is a thing of the past. And as I stare at the White House, with hundreds of beautiful people of all different shapes and colors standing beside me, soccer and softball games going on all around, street vendors selling hot dogs, and protestors calmly beseeching change, I wonder why we are trying to build democracy in some foreign land when we seem so close to losing it at home.

I look at the White House and loathe the injustice it cannot or will not end. I peel my eyes away, and look at everything else, and fall back in love again.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Athens, Apathy, or At a Loss?

I received an interesting spam email the other day, indicating that the end of American democracy is upon us. It began with an Alexander Tyler (Scottish history professor) quote from 1787 regarding the fall of Athens.

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:
  1. From bondage to spiritual faith;
  2. From spiritual faith to great courage;
  3. From courage to liberty;
  4. From liberty to abundance;
  5. From abundance to complacency;
  6. From complacency to apathy;
  7. From apathy to dependence;
  8. From dependence back into bondage."

I began to consider this quote. Our inception as a nation most certainly included a great deal of bondage, spiritual faith, courage, liberty, and abundance. Were one required to choose a single item from the above list, I'd say it should be liberty. I'd proceed from liberty to bondage.

Additionally, our age of complacency and apathy came far after the beginning of our age of dependence. Meanwhile, the author seems to be defining dependence as a welfare state. The only way I can see bondage stemming from dependence would be if the dependence era were part of an increasing gap between rich and poor, where those with power placed those without into a state of bondage. That doesn't seem to be the point of our welfare state which, following the passage of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), truly doesn't even exist anymore (see below).

As for spiritual faith, it is clearly more dominant in decisionmaking (e.g., politics) now than it has ever been. We often hear rhetoric to the contrary, but that is what it is: rhetoric. The Constitution, written by Christian - even Protestant - men, does not mention "God" one single time. Not once. If is simply specious, if not a downright untruth, to claim the founders intended a government based on Christianity, when they failed to include a single reference to such in the document that would guide said government.

The email continues by quoting Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, who points out that: "In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush won was mostly the land owned by the tax-paying citizens of this great country. Gore's territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living off government welfare..." Oson believes the United States is now somewhere between the "complacency and apathy" phase of Professor Tyler's definition of democracy, with some 40 percent of the nation's population already having reached the "governmental dependency" phase.

How does one define government dependency? As elderly people having the security blanket of Social Security? As low income citizens having the safety net of Medicaid? Or is he referring to the couple thousand people left on welfare? Perhaps he's referring to the vast majority of citizens that "depend" on the government, through public schools, to educate our children? Or maybe he's referring to that nation-jeopardizing practice of "depending" on fire, police, and the military for public safety?

I would argue that a government that strives toward the common good, toward equal rights and equal access for all of its citizens, is certainly one that is likely to continue existing into the foreseeable future.

A quite perplexing piece of spam. However, there are two incredibly relevant points to be drawn from this email.

The first is this: this email is very likely an urban myth. indicates that the Tyler quote is likely fictitious and that Professor Olson is the source of nothing contained in this email. A friendly reminder we shouldn't believe everything we read, regardless of how intelligent it might sound.

The second is this: mythical as it is, the email nonetheless contains a solid conclusion. Apathy is, without question, the greatest danger to our democracy. On that point, it was dead-on.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rights not Rhetoric

On April 10, 2006, ten thousand Latinos and supporters marched on the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison to protest HR 4437 and other anti-immigrant legislation currently working its way through Washington and dozens of statehouses throughout the US. This has become a predictably partisan issue, with those on the left screaming "racism" and those on the right screaming "law breakers."

There is some truth to both sides. There seems to be little question that if the majority of immigrants were educated, white, English speakers, that this issue would be less prominent. However, there is a complex reality that must be faced. A great number of Mexicans are in fact entering the US illegally. This is only possible because of our shared border. What of the countless Mexicans, other Latinos, Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans who try to enter the United States legally?

There is the arduous and time consuming process of obtaining a green card. Only 50,000 green cards are awarded per year, via lottery. This requires an application fee, filling out dozens of forms, and a fair amount of luck. There is also the H-1B work visa process. This is difficult as well, with only 65,000 issued - at most - each year. Sadly, these are only for college educated professionals who can make a contribution to the US economy. Then there's citizenship itself. An expensive and time consuming process, one must maintain a period of permanent presence in the United States -- the date of which doesn't even begin until one has permanent legal resident status.

For better or worse, this is our process and our law. When some immigrants circumvent said law, what message does that send to other immigrants who endeavor to go through the almost unimaginable difficulty of doing it legally? Also, when immigrants circumvent the law and remain illegal, they become part of a permanent underclass from which they simply cannot escape.

At the same time, the United States has always stood as the beacon of freedom. "Give us your tired, your poor." Most Latinos are coming here to work and provide a better life for their families. In most cases, they are doing jobs that most Americans are unwilling to do, for wages we'd consider ludicrous.

This is not an easy problem and like most, there is no easy solution. One thing that will not solve the problem: the left screaming "racism" at the right, while the right screams "illegals" at the left. The solution will require several elements:

(1) An avenue to legal status and citizenship for the illegal immigrants already living and working here. Any other solution does nothing but drive the problem underground and create a police state where neighbors spy on neighbors.

(2) A new temporary work visa that belongs to the worker, not the employer, and enables a wider range of migrants with job offers to enter the U.S. legally. The vast majority of immigrants come here to work. Let's create a system that allows them to come legally, work with dignity, and maneuver their way into our economic mainstream.

(3) An improved family unification system, which would reduce the delays experienced by immigrants seeking to rejoin their family members in the U.S. This is simply essential in any nation that purports to care about family values.

(4) Possibly most importantly, we need to recognize that the vast majority of us are descendents of immigrants. Our grandfathers and grandmothers often faced the same scorn upon entering this country. It is the 21st century and it is time to evolve our thinking. We are rapidly becoming the most multi-cultural nation on earth. Assimilation is no longer the answer. Instead, we must guarantee equal opportunity for all, celebrate the diverse traditions and cultures that add so much value to our nation, and welcome our new neighbors with open arms.

There is great complexity here, but answers do exist. We need to focus on solutions, not rhetoric... and we can begin to solve the immigration problem in a way that is both fair and dignified.