Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Postcards to Georgia

November 16, 2020

Thank you for volunteering to write postcards to Georgia voters in this all-important run-off Senate election! Here are some tips for successful interactions with potential voters:

1. Address your recipient by their full name—for instance, “Dear Jane Doe.” Do not say “Ms. Doe.” Do not say “Miss Doe.” Especially do not say “Dear Peaches.”

2. Choose a generic postcard image that will appeal to all sorts of people. Pictures of kittens, American flags, or the Statue of Liberty are all good. Kittens waving American flags at the Statue of Liberty are even better. Pictures of Gone With The Wind, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or that great Architectural Digest cover photo of your weekend home on Turks and Caicos will not work as well.

3. Include a sentence about why this election is important to YOU. Write from the heart. We repeat, write from the heart. Do NOT write from the spleen. Or the gut, the fist, the kishkes, the middle finger, or the naughty bits. Do not write, “It’s time for Mitch McConnell’s turtle face to suffer unbearable humiliation and burn in the eviscerating, pustulant, everlasting fires of Hell.”

4. No need to mention how you lost your virginity to REM in your boyfriend’s parents’ minivan.

5. Likewise, don’t reference Midnight Train to GeorgiaGeorgia on My Mind, or Sweet Georgia Brown. Georgians are sick of that sh-t.

6. Do not take sides on Nene Leakes versus Sheree Whitfield. You are not writing to them about important stuff like Real Housewives of Atlanta, just about the future of the U.S. Senate.

7. Keep in mind that not all Atlantans work for the CDC. Please do not ask for behind-the-rope-line VIP access to the Covid vaccine.

8. No threats and no bribes. No marriage proposals, Harry & David fruit boxes, bitcoin, or offers to give them a kidney. 

9. Do not ask if they know anyone with an AirB&B who could lodge you, switch their utility bills to your name, and register you to vote by December 7th.

10. Don’t try to sound southern. Your idea of southern dialect probably sounds like the misbegotten love child of William Faulkner and The Beverly Hillbillies. Y’all hear me, sugar?

11. Keep focused. When writing hundreds of postcards, it’s easy to zone out and slip into automatic pilot. You are NOT asking them to vote for Sara Gideon! Repeat to yourself: Not Sara Gideon. Not Sara Gideon.

12. Maintain an upbeat tone. Sound like a friend. That doesn’t mean you need to share how you were on anti-depressants from November 8, 2016 through November 7, 2020, even your emotional support dog was on anti-depressants, and your therapist moving to Canada didn’t help.

13. Remind them that an important holy day is coming in December. Not Christmas, not Chanukah, not Kwanzaa—December 14th, the start of early voting! The rest of the country—heck, the rest of the world—is deeply envious of Georgia and its local political consultants, TV stations, printers, and mail houses who will have a busy and happy holiday season. Don’t let us down. Voting is a muscle. Exercise it! Drop and give us twenty! Pump that ballot! Five laps around the county courthouse! 

14. End on a friendly note by signing the postcard with your first name. But not Sherman. Come to think of it, not even Herman.

Y’all hear me now, sugar? Write those postcards!

A 2020 Bedtime Story

October 10, 2020

Once upon a time, there was a land threatened by a new and unknown plague.

Informed of this threat, the president convened a team of expert medical advisors. Then he called a meeting with the leaders of the two main political parties, all of whom went on TV together calling on the nation to unite and fight this threat, the way they fought fascism in WW2 and terrorism after 9/11.

The leaders wore masks—mostly red-white-and-blue masks, although one spunky left-wing politician wore a mask saying “Medicare for All” and am equally fervent right-wing politician wore one saying “Protect Life.” Together they warned that we would all face sacrifices, but inconvenient steps like wearing masks and sheltering at home were better than losing neighbors and loved ones to this illness.

The president pressured factories to shift production quickly to protective equipment, and directed that equipment to frontline workers. Pop-up clinics with free testing and free groceries were set up in low-income neighborhoods. The Department of Education rushed big grants to school districts to ensure that all children had computers, Internet, and tutoring help while classes were temporarily moved online.

Masks became the hot collectible of the year, with the First Lady sporting masks by Versace and Gucci, the NRA selling Second Amendment masks, and pop stars promoting masks with the cover of their latest album.

Public sentiment was so unified and clear that even libertarians grudgingly wore masks. Viral rates remained low enough that it was possible to re-open schools safely in the fall. The winter was challenging, with everyone sick of sheltering in place, but the president and his counterparts from the other party returned to TV to praise Americans’ commitment and urge everyone to stay the course. Pharmaceutical companies worked steadily to develop vaccines under supervision of non-partisan FDA regulators, and leaders of both parties stepped forward together—again on TV—to take the first doses and encourage others to be vaccinated.

Decades later, seniors who were children at the time would recall the Plague Year as a time of family togetherness and neighbors helping each other. Those who drove cross-country on family camping vacations would remember their parents exchanging elbow-bumps with other grown-ups, their eyes conveying smiles of greeting over AOC and Ted Cruz masks.

Fewer than 10,000 people in a population of 300 million died. Reporters from around the world flocked to this land to see how they did it. Proud of its success, the country shared its knowledge and worked with drug companies to provide vaccine at minimal cost to less wealthy parts of the world.

“It’s just the neighborly way to live,” said an Ohio machinist interviewed by a reporter for The Guardian. “Big city or small town, black or white, red or blue state, we’re all in this together.”

Okay, kids, that’s all for now! Time to sleep. I’ll tell you another fairy tale tomorrow night, after I finish writing my latest batch of Vote-for-Joe-Biden postcards.

Conflicted over the (Israel-Iran) Conflict

February 26, 2012

The New York Times had a front-page story last week about how, exactly, Israel would carry out a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Reporter Elizabeth Bumiller interviewed all sorts of military experts about the logistical challenges of such a strike, even including a map of three possible air routes that Israeli fighter planes could use to reach Iran.

This felt surreal. Such a strike would be a a de facto act of war. Normally it would be planned in deepest secrecy with a goal of utter surprise. But here we were — millions of New York Times readers, to say nothing of the diplomats and pundits — discussing it as casually as we would discuss Jeremy Lin’s basketball prowess or Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning Michigan or Florida.

Possible flight routes for Israeli attack on Iran / Map by New York Times

What kind of  “surprise attack” is this when the entire diplomatic world has been debating it for months, and the New York Times has  printed maps of the flight routes on its front page?

Even with all the public discussion, no one knows what the outcome will be:

  • Maybe it would be a quick surgical strike that slows down (doesn’t stop) Iran’s nuclear production. There would be an explosion of news stories, lots of denunciations and finger-pointing, and then life in the Middle East will go on as usual.
  • On the other hand, maybe this is the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a “surgical strike” that in fact  launched World War I. Maybe Iran retaliates and wipes out half of Tel Aviv. Maybe other countries like Syria or Pakistan decide to intervene on behalf of Iran. Maybe things escalate further and we end up with some kind of huge international conflagration….

When we read the history leading up to World War I these days, it’s easy to scratch our heads and feel, “What were they thinking with all those alliances? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

Fifty years from now, will history students scratch their heads and say, “How could the world just have let this confrontation between Israel and Iran happen? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

I feel conflicted about this whole scenario. I believe strongly in the rule of law, international diplomacy and trying to work things out non-violently. Thirty years ago, I would probably have come down squarely against an Israeli attack.

But thirty years ago, the “enemies” that America and Israel were dealing with were different. We hadn’t seen the emergence of the totalitarian, anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Islamic state that is Iran.

I don’t doubt that Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one. Unlike Latin American leftist movements, for instance, the Iranian mullahs don’t differentiate between governments and people — they’d be willing to kill a million civilian Israelis to punish the Israeli government.

So one question is — is Iran in fact close to having nuclear weapons? I have no good way to evaluate this. Most experts seem to think so; but then there are some who disagree. We rushed to judgment on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and later found out we were wrong, so there is good reason to be skeptical. Yet people tend to fight the last battle rather than the current one. Just because Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t have nuclear capability.

So then there is the second question: Is there a non-violent way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

So far, non-violent approaches like economic sanctions don’t seem to be working. If the pessimists among the experts are right, we don’t have the luxury of five or ten years to wait for sanctions to bear fruit. I see only two non-violent approaches that could defuse an Iranian nuclear threat:

  • A revolution within Iran that brings to power a more moderate government that wants to ally with the West.
  • Complete resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is no longer any pretext for Iran to attack Israel.

Neither of those are what you might, in the short run, call “likely.”

So where does that leave me? Conflicted.

I hate the idea of Israel acting outside the law, attacking another country, assigning itself the role of international vigilante, and killing civilians as will inevitably happen in any large-scale military action. It’s so completely counter to the idea of Israel as a light unto the nations, a country built on Jewish ethics.

At the same time, I don’t see an effective alternative.

And so I sit here, reading stories like that Feb. 20 New York Times piece with a combination of surreal fascination and angst. I feel like we are watching two trains head toward each other in slow motion. Everyone sees it; no one can stop it.

Is this how people felt in the run-up to the Franz Ferdinand assassination?

The worst are full of passionate intensity

September 15, 2011

The New York Times ran a story this week about how the Islamists seem to be the best-organized political force amidst the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. It quoted a secular Libyan businessman who had backed the revolution, Adel al-Hadi al-Mishrogi:

“Most Libyans are not strongly Islamic, but the Islamists are strongly organized, and that’s the problem… Our meetings go on for hours withour decisions. Their meetings are disciplined and right to the point. They’re not very popular, but they’re organized.”

That same dynamic seems to be true in Egypt and other countries that experienced the Arab Spring. It makes sense historically. For decades, dictators repressed political dissent, and so it took people with really deep, really powerful beliefs – people like religious fundamentalists — to maintain a clandestine opposition.

Libyan protestor / Photo by CrethiPlethi

It worries me when I think about what will happen in those places. Yes, there are all those inspiring young pro-democracy activists with their tweets and Facebook pages. But I keep thinking of Reading Lolita in Teheran, Azar Nafisi’s book about Iran, and her description of how in 1979 she and other university students believed they were fighting to replace the Shah with an open, democratic society.

And then the students – moderates, leftists, too busy squabbling among themselves to confront their real enemy — were completely bulldozed by the Islamists. The result? The repressive, theocratic regime that continues to exist there today.

It’s not just that religious extremists do better at building organizations under repression. They also harbor less doubt. They are more single-minded. They’re willing to do what their leaders say, and put their own individual desires second.

And this doesn’t just apply to Islamic fundamentalists. Here in the U.S., it seems like the Christian right plows ahead with single-minded determination while those of us on the secular, liberal side of things complain about Obama and fiddle with our iPhones and feel like we have made a significant political statement by spending an extra $2 per pound on organic, free-range chickens at Whole Foods.

The American right has media icons like Rush Limbergh and Glenn Beck who don’t admit a single speck of doubt. The left has… the New York Times and NPR.

Which not only admit specks of doubt, but have a mission of showing both sides and presenting nuance. Doubts R Us. 

Or translate this same question to Israel. The West Bank settler extremists are 110 percent convinced that God gave them the land they are occupying, and are willing to kill prime ministers to hold on to it. More liberal Israelis, meanwhile, go around in circles with ambivalence: Yes, the Palestinians deserve a homeland. But they’re shooting missiles at us. But you negotiate with enemies, not with friends. But we tried negotiating and it didn’t work. But there’s no long-term alternative to two states. But that new Palestinian state will become a Hamas beachhead…

I think of that line from Yeats’ The Second Coming:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I find myself strangely nostalgic for, of all things, the American Communist Party.

Okay, don’t pillory me just yet, I am aware of the Stalinist show trials and the gulag and the Maoist reeducation camps and the invasion of Czechoslovakia and all the other terrible things that can be attributed to communism.

But wouldn’t it be nice if there were a group on the left these days that was as committed, disciplined, fierce, and hard-working as the CP used to be? Those of you who are history buffs, please correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the CP the quiet, behind-the-scenes engine behind much of the progressive stuff that happened in mid-20th century America — the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the labor movement? The CP did the grassroots organizing and created the pressure from the left that allowed more moderate liberals to move forward with a progressive agenda.

When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1980s, there was a disparaging term for a liberal intellectual — yafeh nefesh, or “beautiful soul.” The caricature was of someone who had oodles of culture and ethics and philosophy, but no clue how the world really worked. No toughness.

I often fear that ideologues on the right — the Egyptian and Libyan Islamists, the American Tea Party, the Israeli right — have the muscle worldwide.

And we on the left have beautiful souls.

The Big Tel Aviv Protest: A Firsthand Account

September 6, 2011

No, I didn’t fly to Israel over the weekend to attend the Sept. 3 protest. (I was home with a sick child; otherwise I would have, honest!) But I’m happy to be able to share a (long) account by my friend Hillel Schenker.

Background: This summer saw a series of protests and demonstrations by Israelis over basic economic and social needs — seeking more affordable housing, lower food prices, less of a gap between very rich and poor etc.

For decades, Israelis have shied away from such bread-and-butter demands because of security worries: Who can justify complaining about the price of cottage cheese when shells are falling on towns near the Golan or Gaza? So it’s really significant that  thousands of Israelis were fed up enough with rising inequality and the Netanyahu government to create tent cities in Tel Aviv and take to the streets.

Tel Aviv, Sept. 3, 2011 / Photo by Hillel Schenker

The latest demonstration was on Saturday Sept. 3rd. Organizers had called for a million-person march, and got significantly less than that, but it was still a strong turnout, particularly coming on the heels of renewed attacks from Gaza.

Hillel is a Tel Aviv resident and a fellow alum of the youth group Hashomer Hatzair (although he was a member a little before my time). He’s a longtime activist in the Israeli peace movement, and currently co-editor with Ziad AbuZayyad of the Palestine-Israel Journal. Somehow, through the ups and downs of Mideast events, he remains grounded and optimistic and committed to a two-state solution. I deeply trust his political judgment. If I lived in Israel, I like to think I’d be doing what he does. Here’s his account.

Where Were You on Sept. 3, 2011? The Big Demo in Tel Aviv

By Hillel Schenker

The signs all over Tel Aviv leading up to the big demonstration read “Where were you on September 3, 2011?”  Well, I was together with 450,000 Israelis on the streets, over 300,000 in Tel Aviv alone, with another 50,000 in Jerusalem, and 100, 000 in Haifa and the north.

‪As I headed out for Habima Square, I felt a slight anxiety attack: there seemed to be too few people heading towards the Rothschild Blvd. Tent City headquarters. But the people kept coming. When I arrived at the “command headquarters,” everyone was in the midst of making makeshift homemade signs to carry, alongside the professional placards.  The main attraction was a French artist who set up a photographic studio on the square, and lines of people were entering to have their photo taken and then converted into a placard which presented the face of the revolution — you and me, every one of us.  The placards were plastered above the nearby banks and supermarkets which are among the targets of the demonstration, on the square itself, and later held on high by some of the model/demonstrators, some carrying their own image, some carrying images of others.‪

‪In this digital age it was hard to tell the formal media from the citizen digital journalist/artist/documentarians since everyone was taking pictures of everyone else.  People seemed to want to have a record that they were there on this historic day.

‪Among the attractions at the starting point was a protestor proudly waving a Che Guevera flag, a man in an Israeli flag mask and costume, and even a life-size mannequin of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who just marked his 5th year in captivity in Gaza on the back of a motor cycle.

‪ There were clusters of organized demonstrators — from the Israeli student union wearing blue shirts; green flags and “Bring Back the Welfare State” placards among the Meretz people; red flags and placards from the Hadash (Communist) people; the City for All of Us faction and the Arab-Jewish proletarian Da’am party and the National Left people with a placard of a smirking Netanyahu with the slogan “You’re Fired!”, but mainly just plain people with their home-made signs.

‪My favorite was a toddler who obviously just learned to walk (more or less), who had a slogan on the back of his shirt saying “I cost a whole months’ salary for upkeep”.  I complained to his mother that the slogan didn’t stand still long enough to take a clear photo, and she just smiled, what can I do? I’m just his mother.

His shirt reads, "I cost a whole month's salary." / Photo by Hillel Schenker

‪‪And then there were the two guys wearing a “We don’t need sex/we’re fucked enough by Netanyahu” t-shirt, who complained that my flash didn’t go off when I photographed them.  Don’t worry I said.

‪The march headed out with drums, whistles and slogans, placards and flags held high, and turned left on Ibn Gvirol Street.  The most popular slogans were “The People Demand Social Justice (Ha’am doresh/tzedek chevrati“, “Hoo, hah, look who’s coming/ the welfare state (Hoo ha, mi zeh bah/medinat harevacha)” and “The state is crumbling/get off your porches (Ha medina koreset/t’zu min hamirpeset)”, the latter two rhyming in Hebrew.

‪‪Truth is, even the porches were participating, with groups of people with pots and pans banging out their solidarity.

‪As the throng neared the imposing Tel Aviv Municipal building overlooking Rabin Square where the prime minister was assassinated 16 years ago, a big whooshing protest noise was heard — perhaps because this was the only establishment symbol along the route.  This despite the fact that Mayor Ron Huldai, who declares that he is a social democrat, allowed the Tent City to squat on Rothschild Blvd, making no attempt to remove it.  Opposite the stairs where Rabin was shot, I see a protestor carrying a sign — “Walk like an Egyptian.”

‪Yair Yanov, who was together with me on the Peace Now national leadership forum in the mid-90s, explains all of the mistakes that the organizers have made.  The route is too long and people are tired – and how could the Noar Haoved V’lomed (Habonim) youth decide to go directly to the square rather than participate in the march?  He’s skeptical and somewhat pessimistic. My response: Just remember that two weeks ago with the attack in the south and the security crisis, people were afraid that the protest would end. They never imagined that it was possible to revive it and have so many people participate.  And believe me – this will have a profound, long term impact.

‪‪We pass Arlozoroff Street near the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) headquarters, the street named after Chaim Arlozoroff, one of the militant leaders of the pre-state labor movement who was presumably assassinated by followers of right-wing Revisionist leader Jabotinsky, the next street that we turn into to head towards our goal, Kikar Hamedina, the State Square, surrounded by Heh B’Iyar Street, the Hebrew date for the day that State of Israel was declared in 1948.   Zionist history in a nutshell.  And someone is carrying a placard — “The War for Independence 2011”.

‪‪When I was on the kibbutz, every year the circus would come to town and set up a big tent in State Square.  We would pile into a truck with the kids and come to the city to see the animals, daredevils and clowns.  Now there are circuses without animals, animal rights groups are also among the protesters, and State Square is surrounded by upscale shops and upper class homes.  It’s also the biggest open space available in the Tel Aviv, which is why it was chosen to host “the mother of all protests”.

‪‪The old order is over  — “we are the “New Israel” proclaims Yitzhak Shmuli (31), the articulate and charismatic head of the National Student Union. In a brilliant if somewhat demagogic speech, he declares that we will continue the protest as if there was no Government Trachtenberg Committee, and we will carry out a dialogue with the committee as if there was no protest.  Careful not to mention the words peace, or even social justice, he gives a powerful rabble-rousing speech, says that the protesters are in it for the long haul, and introduces the name of a potential new political party that may evolve out of the protest movement, Yisrael Chadasha/New Israel.  Shmuli rushed back from overseas to participate in the protest, and is reading Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of “Che Guevera: A Revolutionary Life” in its Hebrew translation.  I remember Anderson and his brother Scott, when they worked with us at New Outlook on an investigative journalism project on Israeli arms dealings with questionable regimes in South America.

Sign with photo of Netanyahu says "You're fired!" / Photo by Hillel Schenker

‪‪Cinema student Dafni Leef (25) is Shmuli’s counterpart, and in many ways opposite. She began the whole process seven weeks ago when she announced an “Event” on Facebook and with a few friends set up the first tent on Rothschild Blvd.  People knew that Saturday night’s demo would be a success because 350,000 people had already pressed the Facebook button Yes, not No or Maybe, to the question of whether they were coming to the 9/3/11 “Event”. Leef gave a passionate, very personal speech:  They tried to slander us, at first calling us spoiled brats, sushi and nargila (water pipe) lovers.  Then they said we were left-wing extremists.  And then they said the attack in the south would cause us to fold up our tents, and they didn’t understand that we were mourning for the loss of innocent lives, but were not giving up.  And then they attacked me personally — referring to the fact that a right-wing organization had discovered that in 2002 when she was 17 she had signed the annual 12th graders letter declaring a refusal to serve in the army in the Occupied Territories, a variation on the letter my son Adi and 250 other 12th graders signed in 2005. Leef defiantly declared that the reason she didn’t serve in the IDF was for health reasons (epileptic fits), she would have served otherwise, and she volunteered for a year and half to help problematic youth in disadvantaged neighborhood, giving service to society.   “I am in the center, and no one can push me into a corner!”  They will not cause us to stand down, or give up. She also dared to attack the current form of Israeli capitalism as the root of all evil. A hush came over the crowd when she recalled a poet friend who committed suicide two months before the protest began, because he felt that given the state of Israeli society, he couldn’t dream, couldn’t be a poet.  We must create a society where young people can have the right to dream, to be poets she exclaimed.

‪Motti Ashkenazi was there to recall the popular protest he started after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, though most of the people around me seemed to be wondering who he was.  There was also an impressive 11th grade teacher, leader of the teacher’s protests, who spoke about Jewish-Arab solidarity, and the right to quality education for all, a passionate single mother from a development town studying at the Kibbutz Movement Educational Seminary who shouted “Wake up Israel!,” Prof. Yossi Yonah, one of the heads of the advisory committees set up to advise the protest movement on policy, and even veteran stage personality/performer Rivka Michaeli, who said she was representing the senior citizens.

‪There were a few signs stating “Social Justice = An End to the Occupation”.  The issue of peace and security was not at center stage, but that will come.  There was also one lone sign held by two youth protesting against “Dafni Leef and her hallucinatory leftwing friends — this protest belongs to all of us”, but they seemed to be ignored by the masses.

‪And of course there was music, there is no revolution without music  — Hayehudim (The Jews), one of the leading punk rock groups (clearly not to everyone’s taste), Dag Nachash, the popular Israeli hip hop/funk group led by Sha’anon Street who totally identifies with the protest movement in word and song, and Mizrachi singer Eyal Golan, considered perhaps the most popular Israeli singer during the past decade, and also not a bad soccer player, who had the young people swaying in the square.

‪So what does it all mean?

‪First of all, the 9/3/11 demonstration was a tremendous success, against all odds.  But it is not an ad-hoc one time phenomenon.  It is the climax of an extraordinary, unexpected Israeli summer of social protest, a link in the chain of grassroots social protests sweeping the Middle East, Europe and Latin America in the spring and summer of 2011.

‪There will be no overnight revolutionary transformation in Israeli life.  But as Dafni Leef declared, the movement has initiated a fundamental change in the Israeli discourse.  And as all of the young leaders and most of the commentators state that the events of this past summer will have a profound impact on the long term direction of Israeli society.  There were placards which read “We’re Going into Politics — Register for a Party — Change from Within!” not calling for joining any particular party, but to simply get involved in the process.  During the past decade, the percentage of Israelis voting in national elections dropped from 85% to 62%.   That is going to change, particularly among the previously apathetic, sometimes hedonistic and fatalistic younger generation and middle class, and also among the 20% of the Palestinian Arab citizens. Old parties will have to change or step aside, and new forces may emerge.

‪And the Trachtenberg Committee will come forward with its recommendations, and both the government and the protesters will have to respond to them.

‪The summer of 2011 will be a summer to remember, a summer which has aroused a sense of forgotten pride in many Israelis.

‪Now the hard work continues.

(Un) Happy Labor Day

September 2, 2011

A long time ago, labor unions were a powerful force in American society and newspapers had reporters covering the labor beat.

Then unions faded and newspapers replaced their “labor” reporters with “workplace” reporters. Still, there was one day a year when organized labor could count on getting a front page story and it was…. (you guessed it) this weekend, Labor Day.

Then newspapers themselves started to disintegrate and most of them don’t even have a workplace beat anymore, let alone a labor beat.

If I’m sounding mournful, it’s partly because of a story this week by the excellent dying-breed New York Times *labor* reporter Steven Greenhouse about the sorry state of affairs regarding labor and workers’ rights in our nation’s capital.

Greenhouse reported that the chair of the National Labor Relations Board had stepped down at the end of her term under severe fire from right-wing and corporate critics. Conservative newsletters had attacked the board as “Marxism on the march” and “socialist goons.” Michelle Bachmann promised to shut down the labor agency entirely if elected.

And the reason for their ire?

Among other things…

Critics were also quick to denounce an action that the board took last Thursday: for the first time, it ordered all private sector employers to post notices about their employees’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively.

Posting notices! Oh my God, can you imagine anything worse? Once they force employers to start posting notices, it’s only a matter of hours until we are all in the Siberian gulag fighting over moldy potato peelings.

Anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows how many pieces of paper employers already have to post, and how little difference it makes to anyone except possibly the shops that do the photocopying. This is yet another example of the right’s outstanding ability to turn the tiniest little tilt toward the left, even the tiniest tilt toward the rational center, into an apocalyptic crusade.

This happens on every kind of issue, from health care to air pollution. But let’s just focus on labor for now since, well, it is Labor Day weekend.

There are some dynamic unions out there with dedicated activists and creative tactics. When I covered the *workplace* beat at the Chronicle, I loved writing about Mike Casey and Local 2, the hotel and restaurant employees union in San Francisco.

But the overall picture is pretty depressing. American unions are increasingly limited to health care and government, and even there they are facing growing attacks from small-government Tea Party types. No one has figured out how to maintain strong industrial unions in an era when industry has fled overseas. Union members are a smaller percentage of our population than ever. There’s still too much infighting and narrow thinking within the labor movement itself.

Even many liberals don’t care much about labor anymore —  the trendy lefty issues of the decade are gay marriage, overseas wars, climate change, local food. Think about it: When was the last time you talked about labor organizing with someone? And when was the last time you talked about heirloom tomatoes or free-range chicken?

So why does it matter? Do we really need unions anymore? Aren’t we all “free agents” these days, each cultivating our own “brand of me”, cutting great deals for ourselves as we savvily negotiate our way through the post-industrial economy ?

In a word: No.

That works for some people — if you’re a skilled software engineer or even, say, a former-newspaper-reporter-turned-freelance-writer with Harvard and Berkeley degrees. But most of the time, such negotiations end up pretty lopsided, one little person against a corporation with a legal department larger than most Fourth of July family picnics.

This global economy is a rough sea. Some people can float with their own personal inner tube. But for most of us, it helps to be able to band together and build a boat. It’s the difference between passively reacting to the job market, and trying to shape that market — between being a victim and an actor.

Everything in our current culture militates against unions — not just how jobs have moved overseas, but the focus on individualism and the blind worship of the “free market” here at home. So when government attempts some modest moves towards helping people exercise their right to unionize, I see it as a good and timely thing.

And then the right shoots it down.

Both the potentially significant moves — like an effort by the NLRB to speed up the process of union elections — and the insignificant ones like that dreaded Communist beachhead of posting notices.

I mentioned above that I was feeling mournful. And now, a dozen paragraphs later, that old quote from Joe Hill* pops into my mind: Don’t mourn — organize.

Happy Labor Day.


* I haven’t read it, but have heard good things from my former Chron colleague Carl Hall about The Man Who Never Died, the just-released biography of Joe Hill that presents new evidence that Hill was innocent of the murder for which he was executed.

Between Two Worlds, and a question about the nature of Judaism

August 4, 2011

Yesterday I saw Between Two Worlds, a new documentary about dissent and division within the Jewish community, by the talented Berkeley filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow.

The screening was part of the 31st annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and the festival itself was featured in the documentary — in particular, the brouhaha two years ago when the festival aired a film about the pro-Palestinian American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the demolition of homes in Gaza.

Filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow in Jerusalem

There’s enough food for discussion in this movie to fill a month of blog posts. It skips hither and yon within today’s American Jewish community, from a somewhat snippy take on the Birthright program that arranges free tours of Israel for young Jews, to a classically overheated debate at U.C. Berkeley over boycotting Israel, to a particularly troubling segment on plans by the L.A.-based Museum of Tolerance to build a branch of the museum on top of a seven-century-old Arab cemetery in Jerusalem. (Unbelievable!)

One of the things I liked the most was the way Deborah and Alan wove their own families’ stories into the mix. Deborah’s father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a a very active Zionist, only to have one of his daughters convert to Islam. Alan knew his mother as a suburban housewife and liberal activist with the American Jewish Congress — only to discover, after her death, that she had been a member of the U.S. Communist Party for over a decade as a young woman.

Deborah and Alan’s narratives about these opposite-yet-parallel parents were nuanced, compassionate, and filled with unanswerable questions. Every time the film returned to them, I felt my shoulders relax and imagined my blood pressure dropping — a welcome change from the dire “us versus them” rhetoric that permeated the sections about politics and public debate.

But none of that is what I want to write about.

What I want to write about was one small question raised in Between Two Worlds:

Is Judaism inherently a liberal religion?

This is something that has crossed my mind a lot in the past year or so. Historically, American Jews have been overwhelmingly liberal — voting Democratic and supporting progressive causes such as civil rights, feminism, anti-war movements, and organized labor.

But how much of this is inherent to Judaism as a religion and culture? And how much is due to the specific historical experience of American Jews over the past hundred or two hundred years?

There is certainly a large progressive strain within Judaism-the-religion. The central story of all Judaism is the Exodus, a flight from slavery.  The Torah and Talmud tell us repeatedly: “Treat the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And the voices of the Jewish Prophets are often progressive voices. On Yom Kippur we read a passage from Isaiah in which God excoriates the Jews for carrying out religious rituals while neglecting social justice:

Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Okay. That’s the Judaism I know and love. BUT….

It’s also possible to interpret Torah in a way that looks nothing like Freedom Seders and marches against genocide. Consider the ultra-Orthodox — basing their entire lives around Judaism, but in a way that rarely touches on the concerns or needs of anyone outside their immediate, insular community.

And Israel today… With the right wing holding the political reins, the country seems to be stepping down a road that veers increasingly away from democracy and civil liberties. The Knesset recently made it illegal to advocate boycotting goods from Israel or the Occupied Territories. Last year the Israeli Cabinet approved a law that, for the first time, required non-Jewish candidates for citizenship to swear a loyalty oath. Right-wing politicians have been trying to hold McCarthy-like hearings on groups involved in progressive issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, and religious pluralism.

Maybe the liberal heart of Judaism that I’ve always taken for granted is a mere historical blip. Our grandparents and great-grandparents suffered pogroms; they toiled in garment sweatshops; they crossed borders legally and illegally in search of better lives.

When those generations are a distant memory, will Jewish liberalism also become a memory?


Note: Between Two Worlds will be showing at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco from August 5th through the 11th. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman will field questions after the Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening shows. Whether you end up agreeing with the filmmakers’ perspective or not, I promise it will give you something to talk about afterwards over a glass of ________ (wine, beer, coffee, tea, Slivovice, you fill in the blank).

And for an interesting take on the rise of the right in Israel, see this piece by Liel Leibovitz in Tablet magazine.

(Don’t wanna speak about) American Idiots

November 3, 2010

I’ve been sloshing through all the predictable Kubler-Ross stages of liberal grief over the midterm elections  – denial, anger, bargaining (“If we lose the World Series, can we keep the House?”), depression, acceptance. 

But I’m no great political pundit. This blog is no

So the aspect of the elections I want to write about involves my daughter, a high school junior. 

B. has, so far, turned out to be a solid liberal/radical/progressive. She argues with her classmates over things like the death penalty and unfettered capitalism; and unlike many of them, she thinks about politics even when she’s not required to do so for a history essay. 

That’s all good. And it’s easy to see the roots – our own family values, the tikkun olam that was reinforced in her Jewish education (her Bat Mitzvah drash was on how to treat the ger, the stranger in our midst, and she connected that concept to Darfur), the progressive schools she’s attended, and growing up in the liberal milieu of the Bay Area. 

But there are aspects of her political outlook that also worry me. Over the weeks leading up to the election, she asked more than once, “Why are Americans so stupid?” 

I knew what she meant – she was asking how Tea Party activists getting Medicare can rail about the evils of government spending, or how folks scraping by on $50,000 a year can vote for candidates whose economic agenda is to give more tax breaks to really rich people. Those are things that make me crazy too. 

But I don’t want her politics to be based on contempt or cynicism or some kind of elitist superiority. I don’t want her to categorize all Republican voters as “American idiots,” or to see the bad things about this country without seeing the good. 

I was like that at her age. I was mad at America over Vietnam, Chile, sexism, you-name-it.  It took living in Israel in my 20s for me to really appreciate the U.S. Here’s what did it: The realization that — even among the most wonderful, most liberal, most peace-minded Israelis and Palestinians — no one wanted their child to marry someone from the other camp. They wanted peace, they wanted equality and justice, but then they wanted to be left to their tribal selves. 

That seemed so sad. And it made me feel, maybe for the first time, clearly American. 

So now I have a daughter who resents the hypocrisy of the Tea Party types but is too young to appreciate how far we have come in electing a black president… who feels anger at our history of slavery without a corresponding pride in the courage of the American abolitionist movement. 

I worry that we didn’t do enough when she was little to teach her the positive things about America. We ranted about George Bush and Iraq; but did we talk explicitly about the positive history and values that we felt he was betraying? 

I worry that living in the Bay Area makes it easy to be insular and self-righteous. It’s so easy here to surround oneself with liberal friends who share one’s views on gay rights, climate change, abortion, progressive taxation. (Heck, that’s a big part of why we choose to live here!) 

And I wonder about whether we did a good enough job in this part of our parenting. 

We were very intentional in some aspects of parenting. With Judaism, for instance, we made a conscious decision to light candles every Shabbat. And with body image, I swore my baby daughter would never hear me say the phrase “I’m fat.” 

But I never consciously thought about how to impart a progressive view of the good things about America and its history. 

Honestly, I read my fair share of child-rearing books when B. was young, but I don’t think I ever saw one on this – “Beyond Flag Waving: Raising Your Child to be a Progressive Patriot.” 

This goes beyond parenting, maybe, into the realm of actual politics. We lefty-liberal-blue-state types are very good at trashing the Sarah Palins  and Christine O’Donnells of the world – at gnashing and moaning over the things we don’t like in American politics. 

Would we do better at the polls if we put more effort into clearly articulating the things we love and believe in about America?

I’m Ilana, and I have an online addiction

September 15, 2010

Let’s pretend, just for today, that this blog is a meeting of a twelve-step program: 

“I’m Ilana, and I have an online addiction.”  

It’s not buying used watches on Ebay. It’s not Farmville (been there, done that). It’s not watching Stupid Cat Trick videos on YouTube. 

I fear I’ve become addicted to making online political contributions. 

Here we are entering the thick of the election season. And things have not been looking good for us blue-state,  pro-choice, pro-environment, liberal Democrat types. Every day brings another headline about how Republican candidates are raising unprecedented amounts of corporate money. Or how almost one out of five Americans persist in bizarrely believing that President Obama is a Muslim. Or how polls show independent voters supporting Republican over Democratic Congressional candidates by a 13-point margin, the biggest such tilt since 1981.

And so what do I do when emails show up in my box asking for money for Democrats? 

I click and give. 

It’s so easy, sitting here at my computer all day while trying to revise my novel. I don’t have to write a check, don’t have to address an envelope. Just click. 

I guess some people have this problem with buying consumer stuff online. They get emails from Amazon, or Zappos, or Lands’ End offering all sorts of deals and they click and buy. Me, I delete all those offers. 

Instead I click and spend: 

  • $100 today to reelect Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. (Feingold in trouble? What are we coming to?)
  • $200 on Monday to help J Street reelect three pro-Israel, pro-peace Democrats.
  • $200 last week to to support a bunch of progressive Congressional candidates.  

This is on top of money I gave to the Barbara Boxer campaign last spring to take my daughter to a fundraiser featuring Obama

Yikes! Enough already! Sam and Becca may not get any Chanukah presents this year at the rate I’m going. 

Thinking about it, maybe this is a bit of pent-up demand. I wasn’t allowed to make political contributions all those years that I was a newspaper reporter. So now I’m going overboard at a chance to put my money where my mouth is. 

And rationally, I know I’m probably panicking more than I should. The upside of all the frightening news about the Republican resurgence is that it may energize Democrats and the left. Hopefully there are a ton of people like me right now who are making $50, $100, or even $10,000 contributions, and who will get themselves and their friends to the polling booths in November.

And maybe all these extreme Tea Party types who are taking over the GOP will alienate moderate voters. The Democrats will keep their majority in the Senate, lose less than they fear in the House, and we can move forward with things like fighting climate change, fostering renewable energy, regulating the finance industry in a way that serves consumers, and encouraging a culture of religious and social tolerance in the U.S.  

Then I can check myself into a rehab for recovering online-political-contribution addicts.


Meanwhile, I click.

My daughter and the president

May 25, 2010

Every so often I subject my daughter to a spasmodic attempt at cultural improvement. One year it was buying an encyclopedia; another year, a piano. Last summer, I dragged her and a friend to colonial Williamsburg. 

The result is usually less than what I fantasized. The encyclopedia has proven useful mostly as something to lean on when filling out those little paper checklists in Clue. The piano allowed for about three years of lessons and now serves as a storage shelf for cat toys. Colonial Williamsburg… well, I think Becca’s friend appreciated it more than Becca did. 

This week I decided to take her to see President Obama. He was speaking at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer in San Francisco.  

Barbara Boxer and President Obama / Photo credit: Becca Schuchat

  The tickets were only $250 each, which is what we probably would have given Boxer anyway, and Becca finished her 10th grade finals yesterday. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to let her experience history – be able to tell her grandchildren “I saw Barack Obama” – and perhaps fuel her interest and involvement in politics. 

It was a novel experience for me. I’d covered a couple of prior presidents on photo-op visits as a reporter, and had covered Boxer’s first senatorial campaign back in 1992, but I had never attended this kind of event as a donor. (One liberating side-effect of leaving journalism — the freedom to be partisan!)

The event was billed for 4:30, and we were told to come at 4. Becca and I arrived shortly before that, passing a cordoned-off slew of protestors from the left – Greenpeace, Gray Panthers, people with posters that bore the familiar picture of Che. There was an entrance  line snaking all around the Fairmont Hotel lobby, up two flights of stairs, and back down the stairs, by the time we arrived. We joined it and waited. And waited. 

Eventually we inched forward, down the stairs, around the lobby, down more stairs, and through another lobby to tables where we checked in and received wristbands, and then inched further down through another lobby where we passed through security. 

Finally we made it into the Fairmont ballroom, where we were able to find a spot smack in the center, standing behind about ten rows of other people. Great spot! 

We waited. And waited. 

Becca was getting impatient and bored. She listened to her iPod. We played Boggle on her iPod. The room was filling up and getting hot. We waited some more. Then – hooray! – the Rev. Cecil Williams came out and introduced the Glide church choir, which seemed promising. After four or five songs, someone else introduced a floppy-haired indie folksinger who it turned out had been a counselor for Becca at a weeklong school retreat in 4th grade. Still promising. But with each song by the indie singer, the room got hotter and more crowded feeling, and things felt less promising and more adrift, and people talked louder, and by the end of his set the poor singer probably couldn’t even hear himself. 

It was after 6 pm by now. Becca was unbearably bored and had even given up on the iPod. I was starting to feel a little woozy from the heat and the standing. All around us, people were passing the time by chatting with their spouses, partners or friends. I imagined that if Becca were there with her friends, they’d be chatting. Chat with her mother, though? Forget it. 

By now it was 6:30. No Boxer, no Obama. Becca kept asking, “When is something going to happen?” and I had to keep saying “I don’t honestly know.”  I felt yet another of my cultural-improvement fantasies starting to dissolve. Becca would remember this event, but as an interminable, unutterably tedious afternoon of waiting. 

Then – finally! Barbara Boxer’s son introduced her, and she spoke. And then Obama. 

He was as good a speaker as everyone says. This wasn’t one of his stratospherically inspirational national-convention speeches; it was more conversational, humorous. Still, his intelligence and self-awareness shone through. Both Becca and I were impressed.

He described Boxer as a perfect fit for the state that led the way in higher fuel-economy standards – “a subcompact senator with a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy.” 

Obama jokes with Boxer about her height / Photo credit: Becca Schuchat

He gave a pretty standard defense of his first year in office – coming in to office at a time when 750,000 jobs a month were being lost, passing the biggest investment in infrastructure since the Eisenhower years, passing health care reform, etc. 

He compared the Republicans to people who drive a car into a ditch, then sit on the side drinking Slurpees while you try to push it out, all the time telling you that you’re not getting it out fast enough. “Then when you get it out, they want the keys back,” he said. 

Obama in San Francisco / Photo credit: Becca Schuchat

And he defended himself against critics from the left who say he hasn’t gone far enough fast enough. “Remember the campaign was about hope and change,” he said. “These people weren’t paying attention when I said change was hard. They missed that part. They thought, ‘What a nice swearing-in, he got Bruce Springsteen, it’s gonna happen fast.’ But if it was easy, it would have happened before.” 

The audience loved him. I guess that’s pretty standard at such events, but it was really true. At one point a heckler shouted out, “Move faster on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and others started shouting him down which coalesced into a chant of “Yes we can.”  At another point when Obama mentioned health care, someone from the audience shouted out “Thank you!” and Obama quipped, to laughs, “It’s nice to be appreciated.” 

“All the adults are acting like kids,” Becca said with disapproval. “They’re acting like my friends and I do during assemblies.”

Senator Barbara Boxer / Photo credit: Becca Schuchat

By 7:30 it was over. We headed back to BART by cable car, first watching the presidential motorcade head for  the next fundraiser, a $17,500-per-head dinner at the Gettys.

Part of me can’t help but feel that this is all a little smarmy. We got to walk past the cordoned-off Greenpeace protestors and stand 60 feet away from the president because we paid $250 each. 

On the other hand, $250 is small change in the big picture of things, certainly compared to $17,500 or to the price tag at many of George Bush’s events. And the crowd at our event seemed much more diverse than at many fundraisers – people in t-shirts as well as suits, and lots of African Americans, including one family near us that brought three little kids in their Sunday best.

Will this be something Becca recounts to her grandchildren someday?

I have no idea. I suspect it was hardly life-changing, though more successful than the encyclopedia or Williamsburg.

Later this evening she said she was glad she went, even with the waiting – although she sniffed that they should learn to organize these things better, so the president shows up right after all the people do.  

Maybe she’ll  have a career in campaign logistics.

There were almost more digital cameras and cell phone cameras than attendees / Photo credit: Becca Schuchat