You Want It Darker

harry-thanksgiving-2016

Our son Harry, with whom we enjoyed a great Thanksgiving, has decided to make aliyah (for my non Jewish friends, this means exercising his right as a Jew under Israel’s “Law of Return” which permits Jews and those with partial Jewish heritage or married to a Jew, to emigrate to Israel and, in most cases, to gain citizenship).  His father, sister and I are all supportive of his decision, even though we know it will mean he is a 10 hour flight from Boston. In many ways, if I were his age and single, I might make a similar choice, especially given my experience already living out of the U.S.   In Harry’s own words, posted for his friends on Facebook,

Yes, this move was prompted by the election. I wish I had the fortitude to fight the next few years, to resist what promises to be a very ugly chapter of American history. But I don’t.  I simply can’t. This is not a reaction out of pain, but rather a response to how I can still move forward with the world as it is. I have much more to give, but would sink too deep here to pull anyone else up. I can only do my best to help humanity in whatever way I can from Haifa, and will be praying for all of you fighting for equality and our planet here in the US.

Harry’s decision and his leaving the United States for a new beginning, in an odd way, resonated with my own journey. A week or so before the election, as some of my readers already know, I learned that my fifth treatment in less than two years was not stopping the cancer in my liver. This was a clinical trial that had shown high promise—nearly 70% efficacy between keeping the disease stable and regression—so while my track record so far did not make it surprising that I was in the 30% for whom the treatment does not work, it was still disheartening. It took me a few days to wrap my head and heart around this, and to accept—again—that, in all likelihood, the window of time I have left on this earth is narrowing. Since ending the trial (I begin a new therapy later this week), I have also felt like a tire with a slow leak, some days feeling quite a bit of fatigue and weariness, along with a loss of appetite. I guessed, and my oncologist concurred, that most likely these symptoms are signs that the cancer is slowly but surely advancing.

In the midst of my processing all this came the U.S. presidential election. Like many—excepting most notably Michael Moore, who called it accurately some time ago– I was surprised by the outcome. I was also, and continue on a daily basis to be, disheartened not only by cabinet choices and continuing infantile statements, but also by the burgeoning incidences of hate and bigotry–now numbering more than 700 according to the Southern Poverty Law Center—that are occurring all across the country. The vast majority of these are committed by Trump supporters now greatly empowered by his inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign, and there seems no end in sight.  Some peaceful protests by anti-Trump forces have also turned violent or obstructive, and that is unfortunate, for it clearly detracts from the messages the protestors are trying to send.

In my opinion, we were already becoming unhealthy as a country with growing income inequality and the inordinate influence of big money in politics and public policy—a trend that surely reflected itself in the election.   Now, we can see that, ironically, this trend will almost certainly be accelerated, not reversed–not to mention ushering in a new era of divisiveness and cruelty, and the potentially devastating global impact of dialing back efforts to combat climate change that will affect our children and grandchildren.    There have certainly been periods in our history that have been ugly from a social and economic standpoint, but I think we are about to reach new lows, in virtually every area I can think of. Even with resistance, whether or not the country can recover from the damage about to be inflicted is an open question.   In some respects, this feels like the last gasp of a declining empire, a process that is advancing inexorably—and will likely gain speed– just as my cancer is.

I know this is a dark analysis, and not all will agree or feel they can afford to agree, either with my conclusion or my pessimism.  I hope I am wrong, and that my fears are overly colored by my personal situation —as Martin Luther King famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I can only pray that proves true, and that I can contribute through whatever small actions are in my power while I am still here.

One morning after the election, I awoke as I always do, with the awareness of my illness coming into focus (sleep, meditation, music and long talks with family or friends about something other than my disease are among my few respites from these thoughts.) On this morning, it was accompanied by a new emotion, one at first I didn’t recognize. Gradually I was able to identify it, and I have to say, I was somewhat horrified—it was relief. Relief that I would not have to bear the pain of watching this chapter unfold, relief that I would not have to watch the country continue to be torn apart by hatred and our institutions dismantled in the pursuit of profit and ever growing greed. Just as Harry has come to the conclusion that he can do more good in Haifa, perhaps, I thought—somewhat whimsically, to be sure– there is healing work to be done on the “Other Side,” and I will have a greater role there than I could have here. And perhaps, too, it is another way of managing the inevitable sadness of leaving this world and the people I love.

A day after the election, it was announced that Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian composer and poet, had died. About three weeks before his death, he released a new album, “You Want it Darker.” As I think about Harry’s upcoming journey—and my own—I reflect on how much the words of the album title song have multiple layers of meaning (in Hebrew, Hineni means, “Here I am” words spoken by Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah when they were called by G-d—a more spiritual meaning of readiness to take responsibility, rather than merely reporting physical location).

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the help that never came

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story

But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures

And it’s not some idle claim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle class and tame

I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the love that never came

You want it darker

We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

Hineni

Hineni, hineni

Hineni

The Election–Three Days to Go

I have debated about whether to post anything on the election, since I imagine that most people are really sick of it by now (I know I am—I had 27 emails this morning and all but one were political). But since this is likely to be my last presidential vote (unless I vote as a dead person, LOL), and it has been a most unusual year, writing about it is also a way to record the evolution of my values. It’s a very long post, but maybe you want to come along for the ride, and if so, I hope you find this an interesting read of one person’s journey through what are unarguably very strange times. (This is especially true for my non-American readers, who are many, and who have expressed concern about how crazy things seem in the U.S. these days).

I grew up in a politically divided home. My mother was an avowed Republican, and my father, a Democrat.   My grandfather on my father’s side was also a committed Democrat, even more at times than my father, and often told the story of how my great grandfather Levi, who died on Election Day 1940, did so only after going to the polls and casting his vote for FDR, who was then running for an unprecedented third term.

As a result, our dinner conversations, especially around election times, were quite lively. From my mother, I learned the pejorative monikers for FDR’s work programs—Papa’s Working Again for the PWA, and We Piddle Around for the WPA, as well as her accounts of participants of the PWA playing catch with the fruit they were supposed to be packing instead of doing their jobs.   My father countered on that score with FDR’s numerous accomplishments—Social Security, abolishing child labor (which did not apply to my chores, I learned), the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his stewardship through World War II. These he supplemented with frequent drives to the nearby Huron National Forest—where I learned to drive–with its solemn row upon row of trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps.   He never failed to point out that those trees—which were replicated in forests all over the country to the tune of 3 billion planted —would not be there but for the Roosevelt Administration.

My own views evolved more to my father and grandfather’s side, in part I suppose because I revered my grandfather—and I was also influenced by the rector at the local Episcopal church we attended, who was a civil rights activist (I have written more about him here.)   My grandfather was ahead of his time for our small town in his views on people unlike us — I don’t recall him ever being pejorative about others based on ethnicity (he warned me in particular, in something that must have been prescient, about the dangers of anti-Semitism).

But our dinner conversations also formed the framework of alternative ways of looking at the role of the federal government, as well as its impact on individuals. For my mother, the focus was on waste and on the cavalier attitudes of individuals benefiting from the programs. For my father, it was on the good done for the many. I might equate this today to the difference between people who go apoplectic about the woman in the grocery line who buys a steak instead of hamburger with her food stamps—evidence for them that food stamps make people lazy and entitled—to those who focus more on the many who are deserving—veterans, people who work for Wal-Mart or in other minimum wage jobs but can’t afford to feed themselves or their families on the income they make, children, and the elderly and disabled. Do I mind that my tax dollars are used to help the latter, even though there may be people who “take advantage” of the system? Much less than I mind that a far larger portion of my tax dollars is going to keep the disastrous Lockheed F-35 afloat, or subsidizes the ads that Big Pharma constantly airs on TV. It’s all on where your attention is.

Another insight that evolved over the years is the role of balance of power between the various factions and interests in society. It is no accident that the precipitous decline in union membership in the United States has attended a great rise in unchecked power by corporations and higher income inequality, or that the power of lobbyists and their money has led to policies and laws that benefit not the average American, but the interests of the wealthy. (In the civil rights arena, the relaxing of the Voting Rights Act has clearly also had a deleterious effect).  This has occurred at other points in our history—the robber barons of the late 19th century, the deplorable conditions in the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century, and child labor are but three examples. And of course, great social movements, from the abolitionist movement in the 1800s to women’s suffrage to civil and finally gay rights—all have been grassroots struggles that ultimately forced the federal government to act in a way that moves the needle of justice and restores, to the degree possible, a balance where this has been lost.   (Some may applaud the weakened power of unions; to this, I say, “enjoy your weekend”).

While the federal government can certainly muck things up—in recent memory, No Child Left Behind and Common Core come to mind, along with the war in Iraq–it has also proved capable of enormous good, during both Democratic, and less recently, Republican administrations. On domestic matters these include the National Park system, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the development of a national freeway system, the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and the Family Medical Leave Act (Obamacare has a more checkered track record so far, but taking pre-existing conditions off the table, among other reforms, is a huge benefit even for those not personally affected by other aspects of the law).  All of these have impacted millions of Americans to the good. My ultimate conclusion is that the federal government can be a force for great progress, as well as for bumbling incompetence. Life is complex; it is not all one or the other.

Which brings me to this year’s election.   (In the interest of space, I’m not dealing with either of the main 3rd party candidates here, even though I recognize they are a choice for some who don’t like either major party candidate).

Until he dropped out of the race, I was a Bernie Sanders supporter—not unusual, perhaps, for someone who lives in New Hampshire and had an opportunity over a few years to see Bernie up close. What you see is what you get—scuffy shoes, wild hair, and a passion to both engage with people including those who don’t agree with them (e.g. speaking at Liberty University) and do what is right and just, as well as to get things done, sometimes by quite creative means.  This is a man with vision, authenticity, and ethics—not to mention a desire to serve without personal aggrandizement– that you rarely see in politicians. Does he have his faults? Of course.  But if anyone could have bridged the great divide in our country—and I’m not sure any one person could–I think he had the best shot. I regret that he was not the ultimate choice—and I honestly don’t know how much the weight on the scales exerted by the Democratic party, along with his inability to secure any meaningful portion of the African American vote that was clearly devoted already to Hillary Clinton, hurt him.   I think both probably did, especially since he had an uphill battle to begin with, but I am glad he stayed in the race long enough to ensure a Democratic platform that would restore some balance of power to the interests of ordinary people, and I think he will push hard to ensure that as much of it as possible gets enacted.

Hillary Clinton is another story, a complex character of almost Shakespearean proportions. I have friends—many of them older women like myself—who view her with reverence, and who feel that most if not all of the charges against her are manufactured by Republicans, are due to her gender and time in public life, and/or have no merit.   They are genuinely baffled as to why she attracts such negativity and point to a double standard (in some areas I agree with this, for example, the Benghazi witch hunt and the email server—both informed by my experience in the defense industry– but in others I do not).   I have other friends—and not necessarily Trump supporters—in whom she produces a visceral, completely negative reaction and who think at worst she is the incarnation of evil, or at the most charitable, a very flawed character.

My own view, especially having read Carl Bernstein’s insightful biography of her and following her over the years, is more nuanced, and closer to this analysis by Jon Stewart (boy, do I miss him!!)  In the primary race, the difference between her and Bernie seemed to me like the difference between an organic apple and a Hostess apple tart—both provide nutrition, but in one you get just the apple and in the other, you have to ingest a lot of chemicals and processing along with it. (I won’t attempt a culinary reference for Donald Trump).

Things I don’t question are Hillary Clinton’s intelligence and work ethic, her desire to do good—witness her work to benefit children–or her mastery of the workings and complexity of public and foreign policy (too hawkish on the latter for my liking, but on this topic she is the only possible choice among the four people running).  At the same time, the dislike and mistrust she has drawn are not without foundation.  The most recent flap with Donna Brazile, the interim head of the Democratic party who used her position at CNN to troll for debate questions to send the Clinton campaign, is instructive.   Brazile’s actions were clearly unethical—as were Clinton’s in accepting and using the information and not pushing back on the source. And this kind of thing is precisely why people who respond to polls answer that they don’t trust her.

At the same time, there’s a need for some context. Do I rank this with the numerous documented—and odious –attempts to suppress voter turnout in minority districts by Republicans—or with many of the things espoused by Donald Trump?   As disappointed as I am in the behavior, no.    Clinton’s ethical lapses, her obvious avarice as she cashed in on her time as Secretary of State on the Wall Street speaking circuit, and her sometimes poor memory about her past positions (e.g. gay marriage) are troubling character defects, but they are largely confined to her personal ambitions, and do not physically or otherwise endanger whole swaths of the populace. (And they pale in comparison to the alternative). And, as my Hillary friends who decry the double standard would likely agree, if we had access to the inner files of a George Bush- remember the smear campaign against John McCain in South Carolina in 2000—Dick Cheney, Chris Christie or even Donald Trump- we’d likely find much worse. (We’d certainly find a trove of missing emails from Bush/Cheney). I realize that some may disagree, but that’s my take on it.

When I lived in East Lansing as a student there was a guy named Tom who was running for a local office—maybe mayor. One day I found myself behind a car with a bumper sticker sporting his name and the tagline, “ Vote for Tom…..No Worse Than the Rest.”   I never forgot that bumper sticker, and in some ways it expresses the way I’ve come to feel about Hillary Clinton.   We were eligible to vote absentee ballot, and I checked the box, but –regrettably–without a great deal of enthusiasm. I applaud Bernie for his grace to make the pivot with more zeal than I have. And I sincerely hope my friends who are avid supporters are right and I am wrong, and she turns out, if she wins, to be a great President. But, in my view, great is not on the ballot this year—the far more basic goals of preserving our democracy and basic human decency have taken that spot.

And that brings me to Donald Trump, con artist and bully extraordinaire.   I don’t question that he has attracted a devoted following, but it reminds me of the comparison many years ago to those who supported Nixon—he could be shown on national television choking his wife Pat and at least 25% of the population would say she had just had a heart attack and he was holding her up by the neck.    I have several friends on Facebook who have taken pains to say that their friendships do not depend on who the friends vote for.  I guess that’s admirable, but as a person with a shortened life span and as a student of history, I find it a lot harder to go there (even though I have never taken this view with any previous nominee in recent memory—and that includes George Bush.)  If someone can listen to this man, hear the hatred, fear and lies he spews daily, and still think he would not greatly endanger all we represent as a country (not to mention personal safety for many)  we might be superficial friends, but not on a meaningful level. I certainly won’t refuse to talk to anyone who says they voted for Trump, but to be honest, with my life being as short as it is, I’d prefer to surround myself with people who espouse inclusiveness, kindness, compassion and respect for others, not those who endorse—and by voting for Trump promote–hatred, fear, bullying, and bigotry.

I am also aware that many people who support Trump say they are Christians, and this probably sticks in my craw the most, because if anyone is completely antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, it is Trump—both in his rhetoric and his policies. In that regard, I have to applaud not only the major Christian leaders who have come out against him (including an unprecedented non-endorsement in the Christian Post), but especially the more than 2000 young people at Liberty University who broke with Jerry Falwell to protest the university leader’s endorsement of Trump. (Maybe what Bernie had to say to them made an impression).   They are the true Christians.  And I appreciate that, in the absence of supporting the Republican nominee, they are faced with a difficult choice.

This election cycle has been a very long and ugly slog.  What concerns me is that in many ways, it will not be over even when it’s over.  The effects  will be felt long after the results are in because, in the process, great damage has been done to any kind of civil discourse.  Trump has brought out the haters, the anti-Semites and anti-Muslims, the white supremacists, misogynists, and bullies and legitimized them—already, teachers are reporting a rise in school-based bullying incidents–and it will be very hard to put this back in the bottle, regardless of who wins.  At the end of day, I fear we will need not just a Commander-in-Chief, but a Healer-in-Chief.   I hope someone steps up to play that role.