Finding Common Ground


A highlight of a recent visit to Chicago was walking through Millennium Park, a magnificent 2004 expansion of public space near Lake Michigan. Built with both public dollars and significant corporate support, it has become a major gathering place for Chicago residents as well as a leading tourist destination. Millennium Park is also a real focus of civic pride for Chicagoans.

It’s a vivid demonstration of the value of public space in large cities and of the foresight that generations of leaders in Chicago showed in preserving the lakefront for parks and recreation. Other cities–and you know who you are–squandered the opportunity years ago to create similar kinds of public space along their rivers and harbors.

Public space brings people together, whether for concerts, wandering through gardens, peering at outdoor sculptures, or just providing a place to decompress from the trials of daily life. Perhaps most significantly, the fact that public space is available to everyone regardless of whatever category they are generally placed in underscores the importance of community.

I’m certainly not asserting that a public park is a substitute for dealing with the perplexing issues of urban education, crime and poverty. However, if we were able to see that we actually have a common stake in addressing those challenges in the same way as we appreciate the pleasures of shared public space, we might make some progress.

In fact, you might well trace the current rancor and division in our society and politics to the growing emphasis on self rather than on community. That’s always been a tension in this country, but the pendulum has lurched toward unrestrained individualism in recent years.

The unwillingness of some people to pay taxes to pay for support common services, infrastructure and basic needs has had dire consequences. Crumbling roads, bridges and utilities are taken as too expensive to repair or replace. We shortchange our public schools to the detriment of the whole society. Some elected officials are very ready to send Americans off to wars, but unwilling to pay for veterans services when they return. The less fortunate among us are told that it’s their fault that they weren’t born to a family of means.

Our politics, as shown in the ugly and often racist behavior in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, has sunk to new lows. The rabid mob at the Convention didn’t see victory in the election as adequate; they shouted for Hillary Clinton to be locked up or even executed. That’s not how people in democratic societies act, but the party of Donald Trump shows no shame at its excesses and its abandonment of the values on which this country was founded.

The party’s nominee gave a speech on Thursday night that was intended to terrify every voter in the country in the hope that many of them would turn to him as the strongman who would make everything right.

In the midst of that spasm of emotion, some Republican leaders have not capitulated to the madness and have been willing to put country ahead of party. In future years, when a grandchild asks what you did during the Era of Trump, there will be a clear division between those who can hold their heads up high and those who will have no response other than shame.

Trump’s Convention highlighted the worst in America.  It was, for anyone who sees the value of community and sharing, a truly depressing week.  I’m counting on the Democrats at their Convention in Philadelphia to demonstrate a strikingly different tone and appeal.  Until then, I will take comfort in my memories of Millennium Park as a positive sign of what our better instincts can accomplish.

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate


cool hand luke

That line from the classic Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke, could describe politics in the United States today.

It’s much worse than people talking past each other or even ignoring each other. Opposing sides use the same words but not the same language. They look at the same events and see totally different things happening. If you’ve been paying attention to the news in recent weeks, you can probably identify lots of examples of your own, but let me offer a few to illustrate my point.

After the death of five policemen in Dallas, President Obama went to that troubled city to offer his condolences as well as reflections on police-community relations in this country.  Most of the commentary that I saw described his remarks as thoughtful and sensitive, indeed among his best public comments.  Sadly, he’s had a lot of practice as “Comforter-in-Chief”, and most observers thought he struck just the right tone.

But not everyone.  I read a couple of rants on the Internet about how many times the President used the word “I” in his comments, proof positive that he didn’t really care about the dead police. Not to mention the objection that he spoiled things by mentioning the black men shot by police in his comments on the shootings in Dallas. I’m pretty confident that  people expressing that sentiment have not approved of a single thing that Obama has done since he took office.

That’s certainly a pattern he has had to confront as president.  Even when he has adopted ideas favored by Republicans in the past, he has been attacked.  His health care plan, modeled closely after that one that Mitt Romney championed in Massachusetts, is one of many examples.   Those examples make it clear that there is nothing the President could have said or done to win the approval of his critics.

The chasm isn’t limited to views about the president.  Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in public comments blasted Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.  He immediately suggested that she should resign from the Court for meddling in politics and was joined by many of the same Republicans who don’t think their responsibilities include holding hearings on Court nominees.

More interestingly, however, neither Trump nor his acolytes were ever troubled by the intemperate public speeches of the late Antonin Scalia.  Using the standard they want to apply to Ginsberg, Scalia should have recused himself, for example, from all cases involving LGBT parties.

How about the outrage–what’s a more intense version of that word?–at Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails while Secretary of State?  As a Democrat who plans to vote for her in November, I  think she made a big mistake with her initial decision and with how she explained her actions over the months since it became public.  However, while FBI Director Jim Comey was highly critical of her actions, he concluded that she had not violated any laws.

Comey, who had been highly regarded by conservatives until that pronouncement, has been pilloried for rendering his professional judgment because it didn’t confirm the political preferences of Republicans in Congress.  Yet, nary a word has been heard from any of them in response to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s revelation that he too used a private server and didn’t see any violation of the law in Clinton’s actions.

Let me offer one more example: the differing ways in which reactions are divided whenever there is a mass shooting in this country.  Despite the pleas for a serious conversation about gun violence, no such thing has happened in decades.

Rather, I’d like to suggest that we all listen to the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown.  He first pointed out that the police were doing their job and made a plea for lawmakers to do theirs.  Brown went on to note that in the midst of the attack on police in that City, it was hard to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys” because so many people were openly carrying around the scene of the shooting.  It’s a cinch that none of those “good” guys helped the police deal with the assassin, but they did add to the confusion.

And now we have the prospect fast approaching of a Wild West situation in the streets of Cleveland next week.  Protesters will show up to express their opposition to Donald Trump and the Constitution of the United States will tell them that they have every right to do that.

Somehow, in this upside world in which we are now living, there will be Trump supporters in the streets as well, asserting that those Constitutionally-protected protests somehow threaten them.  And the problem is that those people will in some cases be carrying guns because they are allowed to.  What can possibly go wrong?

Some people in this country, whenever something bad happens, quickly assert that it is Barack Obama’s fault.  I suppose they have a point in that Obama insists on continuing to be Black.

This massive breakdown in communications has been building for years.  What is particularly frightening is that we now have on the public stage a demagogue who is encouraging hatred and bigotry, telling his followers that it’s okay to build walls and marginalize groups because of their race, religion or ethnicity, and setting the example that anyone who disagrees should be attacked verbally and perhaps even physically.

The Trump candidacy is a direct result of our failure to communicate.  Unless he is soundly defeated in November, the democracy that we have cherished since the founding of this country is in real peril.

The Inadequacy of Words

Words can be very powerful. They can inspire patriotism, foment revolution, result in acts of compassion or incite riots. Words can heal, scar, comfort and humiliate.

Yet there are times that mere words are inadequate. In the aftermath of the horror that was last week, thousands of words have poured forth urging unity, understanding, a rethinking of race relations in this country and asserting that we are better than our worst moments. Two common themes were shock at the events of last week and a hope that we as a society could begin addressing the causes of that spasm of violence. Although there were exceptions, the preponderance of what was written in response to the killing of five policemen in Dallas and two unarmed black men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis spoke more to seeking solutions than to casting blame.

As someone who has spent much of my adult life engaged in using words to analyze, advocate and describe, I have a high regard for the importance of putting thoughts into words.  When I taught undergraduates who would tell me that they knew the answer but just couldn’t put it into words, my response invariably was that then they didn’t really know the answer.  Being able to articulate thoughts as words is one of the key ways in which we interact as human beings.

Still, I found the torrent of words from last week, many of them incredibly thoughtful, moving and sincere, to be a totally inadequate response to all those deaths.  Perhaps it’s partly because we’ve heard versions of those words so many times before in the aftermath of whatever was the most recent national tragedy.  We so often declare that “this” must never be allowed to happen again.  We talk about a particular event “changing everything.”  We even assert that there are lessons that have been learned from whatever the most recent horrible event was.

I think many people are a bit numb at this point.  The bad news keeps bombarding us with no time to absorb one tragedy before another comes hurtling at us.  How do you make sense of the senseless?  How do you comprehend what at some level can only be described as evil? How do you retain any confidence that what has happened so frequently won’t happen again soon?

The impulse to express feelings through the written word is a pretty basic one.  I have no quarrel with all those who shared their thoughts last week and in fact was moved by many of the words.  But, ultimately, I took no solace in them.

Last week’s murders are among the many symptoms of a society that shows lots of signs of unraveling.  The inability of Congress to deal with  the core issues facing the country without the discussion turning into partisan warfare is dismaying.  The mean-spirited and ugly tone of so much public discourse guarantees that nothing positive will result.  Public cynicism about our politics and a decreasing level of confidence in the major institutions of our society undercut our ability to find solutions to any of the big problems facing us.

I have written on many occasions about the need for “commonsense” regulations regarding guns, but my larger concern is that we are not even able to have a serious discussion about the topic.  I understand that some people have views on the topic that are different from mine.  What I don’t understand is why those who reject “gun control” are unwilling to offer any proposals on how to reduce–not eliminate–the level of violence that plagues the United States and that sets us apart from every other industrialized nation in the world.  The words we use become barriers rather than bridges to communicating.

The inability to have a discourse on guns is mirrored by similar impasses on many other issues.  We are stuck in stalemate and seemingly lack the will to move beyond it.

Worse yet, we are well into a presidential campaign that could result in an even more fractured country.  I find it totally incomprehensible that Donald Trump, the least qualified and in many respect least serious candidate I have ever observed in national politics, has a chance to be elected president.  I do understand that some in this country don’t trust or even dislike Hillary Clinton.  I also understand that people have legitimate reasons for being angry, frustrated and disillusioned.  What’s harder to understand is why, even with all those factors taken into account, so many citizens would consider turning this country over to an unstable, erratic and potentially dangerous individual who exhibits every sign of being both a narcissist and an autocrat.

At this point, I don’t take comfort in any words about either the presidential campaign or the state of the nation.  While there are many small steps that individuals can take to improve their immediate communities, I’m at a loss how we are going to regain the soul of our nation.  I don’t think we need to “make America great again;” I would settle for making it civil.




4th of July Musings


The 240th anniversary of the writing of the Declaration of Independence is particularly significant in this most bizarre of election years. Even in those times when the imperfections of our political system seem most glaring, we have always comforted ourselves with two reminders. First, as Winston Churchill once observed, democracy is the worst system of government except for all the rest. Additionally, we tend to take solace in the assertion that things have always eventually worked out in the past.

Sometimes the working out has taken a very long time, as with ending slavery and its successor, the Jim Crow era. Voting and civil rights did not come quickly or easily to African-Americans, women, or the LGBT community.  The Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1965 Voting Rights Act reminds us that it’s possible to move backward as well as forward.  We still have a long way to go.

Similarly, the perception of foreign threats has not brought out the best in us. Think of the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus under our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Palmer raids, and the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  In the aftermath of 9/11 and now of terror attacks by ISIS, the debate about the correct balance between security and liberty is in full force

From the vantage point of 2016, we can see real progress in many areas even as the rise of Donald Trump should remind us that we can’t take any of our freedoms for granted. The “it’s always worked out before” mentality is an invitation to complacency with real, not imaginary, harms that could result.

If you doubt that, think of the predictions about the impact on the British economy that were widely ignored before the Brexit vote. Think of the young Brits, who will be most impacted by the split from Europe, many of whom didn’t bother to vote. Think of all those people who searched on Google after the vote to find out what their vote meant.  Think, finally, of the increase in racial incidents in Britain apparently by people feeling empowered by the virulent anti-immigrant message that was a centerpiece of the Brexit campaign.

It’s easy to find parallels for every one of those developments in Britain in the political atmosphere of this year’s election.  Donald Trump’s simplistic pronouncements about renegotiating all of the current trade agreements would cause chaos in the international economic system.  Focusing on NAFTA and TPP ignores the fact that international trade is governed by a much larger complex of agreements.  The impulse to protectionism implied in his rants has always led to turmoil in the past.

Moreover, his “tax plan” would, in the opinion of any economist who has taken a close look at it, dramatically increase the national debt and bring no discernible benefits other than reducing the taxes of the very wealthy.  Actually, Trump has shown so little awareness of how the economy works that the greatest danger is his ignorance and naiveté.

We are told that the “have-nots” voted for Brexit to punish the elites.  We are also told that anger over the struggling economy convinced people to vote for a change without necessarily understanding what that change would be or how it might make things better.

You can definitely see that same dynamic among Trump supporters.  Given that most of those individuals are highly unlikely to switch their position, ensuring that he is not elected president in November needs to focus on getting Democrats to vote and on undecided voters.

Much of the commentary on the Democratic race since Hillary Clinton wrapped up the nomination has focused on whether Bernie Sanders fans will end up supporting her.  The more significant question is whether they will vote at all.  Young voters, the core of his support, have historically turned out in the lowest proportion of all age groups.  That it happened that way in Britain should be no surprise.

Any of those young voters who assert that there is no real difference between Clinton and Trump; or who decide that if Bernie can’t be president they will stay home on Election Day; or who are just too busy to go to the polls; will be making a direct contribution to the election of Donald Trump and to all that will follow.  After the election is no time to have voters remorse or to “wish” that you had done the right thing.

Trump’s campaign has been filled with lies, misrepresentations and distortions.  If you’re one of those people who says that “all of them do it”, you just haven’t been paying attention.  Accepting false equivalency is the lazy way of evaluating political candidates.

Every fact checking organization has concluded that fully three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are largely or totally false.  He has an insurmountable lead in the “pants on fire” and “four Pinocchio’s” ratings.

Don’t wait until after the election to google his comments.  You have no excuse for discovering after the fact that he has been lying to you for months.  If you choose to believe his lies, that’s on you.

And, as in Britain, the ginned-up fear about immigrants is driving a significant part of Trump’s appeal.  We’re already seeing more overt signs of racial and immigrant bias.  If Trump wins, you can count on those same people feeling that they have license to express their darkest and ugliest prejudices.  Not letting him become president is the most effective way to put them back in their boxes since it’s unlikely their minds will ever be changed.

I can think of no more inappropriate way to celebrate this nation’s history and heritage than to “build a wall.”  It’s ironic that Tea Party activists, Know-nothing nativists, and Trump advocates all assert a fealty to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Their values couldn’t be more at odds with either of those documents.  In wanting to build walls, use religious and ethnic tests to determine who gets to be an American, and trying, however futilely, to cut this nation off from the rest of the world, they demonstrate how disconnected they really are from what is exceptional about the United States.

That Democrats will be holding their Convention in Philadelphia, 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was written in that City, provides an almost perfect counter-image to Donald Trump.  The key to Hillary Clinton’s ability to prevail in November is for her campaign to come out of the Convention with the same urgency and commitment that inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence.