Posted by David A. Lehrer
I was driving home Tuesday night on my regular route (Downtown LA to Lincoln Heights—to pick up my wife—to home) when I heard an interesting piece on NPR’s All Things Considered entitled “LA Community Starved for Healthful Food Options.”
It started out innocently enough, another story about Los Angeles being “a food lover’s paradise—unless you happen to live in (you name the neighborhood)”. Over the past several years there have been innumerable stories about the lack of fresh food and vegetable stores in South LA while there is a raft of fast food and convenience stores (see our blog about this) that offer unhealthy choices. The stories ended up generating ordinances from the City Council regulating new fast food outlets.
What piqued my interest in this particular piece was that it dealt with a neighborhood I know something about and the description was troublingly off the mark. It was clear that there was an agenda that the reporter, Mandalit del Barco, had and she was “adjusting” the facts to further that agenda.
The narrative was essentially that Olga Perez, a single mother resident of the Ramona Gardens low income housing project in East LA, was a victim of “fresh food isolation.” There were no markets in the neighborhood and, even worse than South LA with its fast food joints, “there’s no glut of burger joints or taco trucks; there aren’t even any liquor stores selling milk and bread.”
Having set the stage for the desolation of the neighborhood, del Barco proceeded to throw in a fillip of populism,
“Perez found out how the other half lived during a trip across town to upscale Santa Monica, where she visited a local supermarket. There she was amazed by the “apples, the strawberries, the vegetables, the squash, everything….’I didn’t even know (said Perez) that there were markets out there like that.’”
Knowing Lincoln Heights, which is a couple of miles from Ramona Gardens, I was taken aback by the assertion that Ms. Perez had to cross the entire city (nearly 20 miles) to see fresh food; where strawberries and squash were a revelation.
In fact, in my daily commute I pass by a
Smart and Final Extra
in Lincoln Heights that is as nice a super market as one can frequent. It has over-flowing displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, to say nothing of the thousands of items that could meet any need of virtually any customer.The Smart and Final Extra store is 2.6 miles from Ms. Perez’s apartment; she didn’t have to travel to Santa Monica for her epiphany.
Del Barco proceeds to compound Perez’s plight, for even when she does reach a market (apparently pegged at 3 miles from her home) she can only buy what she can carry back in her arms, “that’s what kills me, when there’s a special and I can’t get it.” Another whammy, no car.
To folks who don’t live in LA, or other car-centric cultures, that’s hardly a problem without a remedy (she could purchase grocery basket on wheels which could transport all her purchases at a one-time cost of $30.00—-I checked it out).
The solution, she could take a bus to the
Smart and Final Extra
in 15 minutes, it would cost $1.50 and would require only a one third of a mile walk. Not unlike the walk that residents of numerous urban centers endure. Her purchases, specials and all, could be taken on the bus and wheeled the few blocks from the bus to her home in the basket.
del Barco’s piece is inaccurate and hyperbolic, it is, quite simply, a thinly masked polemic.
Listeners across the country heard a lengthy portrayal of a single mother seemingly denied access to fresh fruit and vegetables because of her residential isolation. An isolation that, the piece vaguely suggests, could lead to her death, like her mother’s (which still “haunts” her), from diabetes. After all, Perez only wants the “fresh, organic foods,
like the rest of LA
Perez’s voice closes the broadcast with a quote that adds an exclamation point to del Barco’s now betrayed motive, “it doesn’t matter if we live in a low-income area…we all deserve to eat the fresh fruits that nature provided for us. We shouldn’t be divided.”
Dishonest pieces, like del Barco’s, only further unwarranted divisions. A simple bus ride and wheeled market basket would offer Perez, and others near her, all the fruits, vegetables and other marketing items that anyone could ever want—-no one is denying it to her.
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January 20, 2011 | 3:59 pm
Posted by Joe R. Hicks
The political dust has settled and facts have begun to emerge about the evil and/or mentally disturbed Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old man who sits behind bars charged with shooting to death six people and wounding 14 others in Tucson, Arizona.
In the days since the tragedy a great deal more information about the man who apparently pulled the trigger allows us to understand far more about this than we did within the first few hours. It’s appropriate to look back at those who acted like vultures, picking at the bones of an American tragedy way before they had any information to allow them to offer a reasoned assessment of what transpired on that Saturday morning.
Even as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was on her way into surgery, struggling for her life after a nine-millimeter bullet ripped through her brain, the nation’s political vultures looked for ways to lay blame for the shootings on their political enemies.
Inside of 48 hours the left and several willing accomplices in the mainstream media tried to make the argument that Jared Loughner was influenced, if not inspired, by conservative talk radio, Sarah Palin, a “climate of bigotry and hate,” the Tea Party, or “mean-spirited” immigration laws.
From thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed by her staff about the Arizona shootings and, with no evidence to support the contention, linked Loughner to political extremism. She said “Look, we have extremists in my country. A wonderful, brave young woman congress member, Congresswoman Giffords, was shot in our country.” Lacking any facts that the shooter was motivated by political beliefs of any kind, this nation’s Secretary of State made the politically-loaded assessment that the killer was motivated by political extremism.
But the die was cast. From CNN to The New York Times and beyond, there was an attempt to connect political conservatives and conservative politics to Loughner’s murderous rampage – damn the facts, full speed ahead.
The New York Times went to print with an editorial that featured this headline: “Bloodshed and Invective in Arizona.” The editorial claimed that Loughner “… is very much a part of a widespread squall of fear, anger and intolerance that has produced violent threats … and infected the political mainstream with violent imagery.”
This controversial opinion by the Times may provide the groundwork for a spirited cocktail party debate over the level and tenor of the nation’s political discourse, but what the hell did any of this have to do with the specific acts of a deranged man who had no discernable political ties.
But as radio talk host Larry Elder is fond of saying of those who seek to score political points no matter what, facts can be like Kryptonite to Superman. Even as evidence mounted that Loughner was “mentally troubled,” “scary,” “a loner” and “non-political” the talking-heads continued to hammer home their talking points.
Clarence Dupnik, the Sheriff of Arizona’s Pima County – the guy responsible for investigating Loughner’s actions – called a press conference to lambast his state and link Loughner’s rampage to an “atmosphere of hatred and bigotry.” He condemned Arizona as “… a Mecca for prejudice.” Dupnik in the past had called the Tea Party movement a bunch of “bigots” and declared Arizona’s new immigration law “racist.” When pressed, this lawman admitted that his opinions about what motivated the killer were based on not one single fact.
Then The New York Times’ columnist, economist Paul Krugman weighed in. He pulled evidence from nowhere to argue that Loughner was connected to a conservative-created “climate of hate.” Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic magazine writer, connected imaginary dots leading to Sarah Palin – the political figure he endlessly obsesses over. However, the prize for irresponsible journalism goes to The New York Daily News writer Paul Daley. His essay was titled “The blood of Congresswoman Giffords was on Sarah Palin’s hands.”
Meanwhile, over at The New Republic, David Greenberg wrote a piece that teased readers with the sly question, since Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish, “was this an anti-Semitic attack?” Having planted this nasty little seed, Greenberg then back-tracked, saying “There is no significant evidence to conclude as such.” No significant evidence? How about no evidence at all!
So what do we know about the alleged killer.
We know that his deranged mind was a fan of both The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf and he appears to have dabbled in satanic beliefs – investigating law enforcement officers apparently discovered some sort of odd satanic alter in his back yard.
An ex-friend of Loughner’s, Zach Osler, appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and told the host “He did not watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn’t listen to political radio. He didn’t take sides. He wasn’t on the left. He wasn’t on the right.”
Since this contradicted the pre-conceived script, none of this mattered. For this nation’s political vultures, bone-headed and ideological efforts to generate a near-political panic had logic - as well as a momentum - all its own.
As people lay dead – including a nine-year-old girl, with others wounded and bleeding, and with a courageous and well-liked Democratic member of Congress on her way into an operating room, political opportunists gambled that this crisis could be used for political gain.
Rahm Emanuel once said “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”
Some took what he said far too seriously and after the ugly bloodletting in Arizona, seized on the possibility that they could use this horrific event to shut up their political opponents.
January 19, 2011 | 2:46 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last week, when President Obama delivered his moving address in Tucson it was hard to predict what its impact might be. A brief moment when we were asked to appeal to our better angels that would pass as the trauma of the awful shooting faded from memory or, perhaps, a pivot after which we would all ask ourselves if we couldn’t each contribute to a more civil and temperate society.
Today’s news suggests that maybe, just maybe, the nature of our discourse might change a bit.
The president had urged us
“to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds…. let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
The press reported this morning that the governor of Alabama delivered a speech yesterday, the day of his swearing-in, at a Montgomery Baptist church where he declared that,
“If you’re a Christian and you’re saved…it makes you and me brother and sister….Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters…so anyone here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister and I want to be your brother.”
On its face, these remarks could easily spark indignant responses from Jewish and other non-Christian spokesmen. Indeed, the head of American Atheists called the remarks, “outrageous”.
But, the head of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, Richard Friedman, was temperate, indeed, it was as if he had absorbed Obama’s admonition “to pause for a moment and make sure we’re talking in a way that heals.”
He spoke about sensitizing “our leaders to the fact that there are non-Christians in this state, and encourage them whenever possible to be sensitive to that.”
And in a comment which seemed to reflect Obama’s suggestion to “expand our moral imaginations,” the Federation’s head assessed the context of the governor’s comments,
“these folks typically don’t mean any harm at all…it never occurs to them that they’re saying anything that would make others uncomfortable. They are simply motivated by their passion for their own religious faith.”
Friedman appropriately said he would assemble a delegation of Jews and Christians that would try to meet with the governor “as soon as possible to initiate a dialogue.”
This incident could just have easily devolved into name calling and nasty assertions of bigotry. The Jewish leaders could have ended up as media stars on cable news networks and a flashpoint for demagogues and publicity hounds would have been created.
Instead, our “instincts for empathy” were sharpened and an opportunity created for greater understanding and less rancor. The Birmingham Federation’s leader didn’t assume the worst motivation so as to “score points and further the pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle” (the President’s words).
There is always time for anger and outrage, an effort of understanding can’t hurt.
November 3, 2010 | 5:26 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
The Wall Street Journal just ran a column by one of its weekend regulars, Joe Queenan, entitled, “I Hear America Whining? Zip It, Pal.” The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. I have been in a quandary over writing this blog and couldn’t quite figure out how to tie in two seemingly disparate events but….whining, and effective whining at that, is what links them.
Queenan’s piece was prompted by the NBA‘s recent rule change that penalizes with a technical foul any player who demonstratively whines about a foul call. How nice it would be, he suggests, if “American society as a whole instituted an across-the-board no whining rule.” As he notes, the media is complicit with the epidemic of whining, “by spreading certain items on bellyaching far and wide, the media bears special responsibility for aiding and abetting this national contagion.” Indeed.
Last week, The New York Times columnist Charles Blow gave credence to the notion that governments-local and national- have supported a “war on drugs in this country that [that] has become focused on marijuana, one being waged primarily against minorities and promoted, fueled and financed primarily by Democratic politicians.”
In a hard-to-believe recitation of woe, Blow claims that young police officers are purposefully funneled by their commanders into black and Hispanic neighborhoods,
“to aggressively stop and frisk young men. And if you look for something you will find it. So they find some of these young people with small amounts of drugs. Then these young people are arrested. The officers will get experience processing arrests and will likely get to file overtime, he (Prof. Levine of CUNY) says and the police chiefs will get a measure of productivity from their officers.”
These arrests, Blow claims, have “very serious, lifelong consequences.”
The column continues with the suspect claim that there is an Obama backed anti-crime bill whose effect is to “finance a race-based arrest epidemic.” Blow favorably quotes author Michelle Alexander with the proposition that “the American justice system is being used to create a permanent ‘undercaste’-a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” and in a coup de grace compares what’s going on to the period of Jim Crow.
Those are serious charges, especially when they appear in The New York Times.
California is a primary focus of the “data” in the Blow piece and in the study he cites for verification. That study alleges that 60,000 people were arrested in California for marijuana possession in 2008. One would assume that the pernicious effects of “marijuana arrests that….permanently bars” someone from “mainstream society” would be most reflected here.
In a recent year, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department incarcerated exactly 6 people in the central jail for marijuana possession. I wasn’t given the data for 2008, but it couldn’t have been markedly different. If that’s what takes place in LA County, all the other counties in California would have had to have been very busy to arrest the balance of the 59,994 souls who allegedly were detained for marijuana crimes.
In fact, in California, misdemeanor possession of marijuana (one ounce or less) results in a maximum punishment of $100; first and second time offenders may opt for a treatment program and arrests are expunged from the offender’s record after two years or upon completion of the treatment program. That’s not exactly Jim Crow, nor is that a one way ticket to the “undercaste.”
Even if one buys Blow’s assumptions—-that there are cadres of cynical officers who train their idle, new recruits on the backs of young blacks and Hispanics-there isn’t much pay off; the “perp” gets the equivalent of a parking ticket. Also, if Blow’s and Prof. Levine’s cynical analysis is correct—- that arrests for mere possession of marijuana were the goal of young cops—- wouldn’t the cops have done much better stationing themselves outside any of several hundred strip malls and arresting thousands for marijuana possession as they left cannabis dispensaries that were more numerous than Starbucks in the city of angels?
I suspect the Blow piece appeared in the Times, in no small measure, because a good whine is good copy; an aggrieved party claiming mistreatment and abuse that plays into conspiracy notions that few want to take on. The fact that the underlying assumptions of rank and cynical bigotry are credulity stretching in the America of 2010 gets overshadowed by the quality of the whine.
This past weekend, elements of the Jewish community opted for a good whine as well.
Over the past month I have received several invitations to a Sunday afternoon lecture sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance. The provocative title of the panel discussion was “Are Jewish Students Safe on U.C. Campuses?” The summary of the planned discussion sets a scene that’s enough to give one nightmares,
Bigotry against Jewish students in California has occurred over many years and on a number University of California campuses. Over the past several years in particular, Jewish students have been subjected to swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti; acts of physical and verbal aggression; the display of anti-Semitic imagery in films and exhibits; speakers who praise and encourage support for terrorist organizations; intimidation and discrimination by professors who proudly display an Arab bias; the rage of student groups who openly advocate murder of Israelis and Jews; the organized disruption of Jewish student sponsored events and, most recently, the promotion of student senate resolutions for divestment that seek to delegitimize the Jewish state.
In June of this year, three brave Jewish academics, each representing a different U.C. campus, had finally reached their limit. They fired off an angry letter to U.C.President Marc Yudof, demanding that the U.C. Regents finally take action. The response of the Regents was to form a Council on Campus Climate which was mandated to investigate the rising occurrence on anti-Semitism on campus.
But this Council may take as a long as eighteen months to submit its final report and the U.C. system itself my take many more years to implement its recommendations.
In the interim, a vital question remains - are Jewish students safe on U.C. campuses? Come to this important community forum to hear a response.
As someone who has been intimately involved in campus affairs and Jewish encounters with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism for the past 35 years, this is hyperbolic, whiney nonsense.
There is no doubt that there are incidents, in fact reprehensible incidents, that are anti-Zionist and occasionally anti-Semitic on various UC campuses from time to time. These are, after all, university campuses that are in many respects disconnected from the real world of politics and responsibility. It has virtually always been so, and probably will always remain so. That’s how young kids learn (both the antagonists and the victims), experiment with radical ideas and then, magically, grow up.
To think that the occasional, aberrant campus incident of today comes close to the kind of activities that were much more frequent in the late 70’s and 80’s is absurd. Then there were coalitions of “Third World” students who were radicalized and made common cause with large numbers of far left radicals students and truly caused wide-spread problems, not a few disparate incidents.
In fact, today is a golden age for Jews on American campuses—-for students, for professors for administrators. To imply that UC administrators are indifferent to anti-Semitism, to Jewish students’ safety, and the other parade of horrible listed in the teaser flyer is absurd. It’s about as likely as LA police brass using young blacks and Hispanics in South LA as punching bags and intentional arrest targets.
What these two incendiary analyses share in common, beyond their whining qualities, is their facile willingness to ascribe nasty motives as the root cause of complicated societal problems which could have myriad explanations. The reflexive assumption that racism or anti-Semitism is the cause of a problem is easy, but often wrong. Cops make arrests for lots of reasons; campus administrators have numerous demands placed on them and a limited capital for serving as a “bully pulpit.” It’s far too easy to ascribe evil motives and kvetch—-but these allegations are asserted, they find an audience and, especially after they appear in The New York Times, become part of conventional wisdom.
These claims also don’t pass the “real world experience” test. Most of us know kids who are students at a University of California campus or recently graduated from one—-I suspect that if they were in jeopardy or felt ill at ease it would be the talk at countless dinner tables in LA and elsewhere and protests would be commonplace. Similarly, were the police or sheriffs in LA doing what is alleged, there would be lots of relatives of those arrested, lots of cops with scruples and conscience making sure such onerous practices were exposed and stopped.
Historically, blacks, Jews and other minorities needed extra sensitive antennae to perceive slights and indignities that might lead to worse problems if ignored; and few, besides them, were paying attention. They were rightfully quick to extrapolate from a few incidents so as to be prepared for potentially greater problems. But that was then.
Today we have leaders who are well attuned to issues of discrimination, we have countless laws on the books to protect individual and group rights, and we have polling data that constantly plumbs how and what Americans are thinking and feeling about race, religion, ethnicity and the like.
In these circumstances to draw incendiary conclusions from inaccurate or isolated incidents is wrongheaded and dangerous. I think Queenan had it right, “In all of these cases, an overarching rule applies: Get yourself a real problem.”
October 25, 2010 | 12:44 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last week’s brouhaha over the firing of National Public Radio and Fox commentator Juan Williams has been a long-time coming. The reluctance of too many to accept honest talk about race relations and its complexity has often led to pious pronouncements that miss the mark—-how we act, not our inner thoughts and fears, is what matters.
According to Williams, he was called by NPR’s head of news and told that he had made a bigoted statement when he appeared on the Bill O’Reilly program and engaged in a colloquy, the initial part of which, has been quoted widely:
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don’t want to get your ego going. But I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.
I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
The rest of Williams’ comments make clear that he was admonishing Bill O’Reilly, his host, to be careful in his rhetoric, “But I’m saying, we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy. We’ve got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.”
Despite Williams’ unambiguous admonition to avoid stereotyping and bigotry, the hook on which the NPR honchos fired him was his candid admission that he gets nervous when he gets on a plane and sees passengers in Arab garb.
NPR’s executive decried his “bigotry” (their words) in admitting his anxiety and told him that, “there are people who were offended” by his comments. In a conversation with his boss that, as Williams described it, sounded a bit like a Cultural Revolution re-education session, he was admonished that he was in violation of NPR’s values not only for his editorial commentary but because he showed “no remorse” for his comments.
I have been in the civil rights field for over thirty five years and have learned something about bigotry and stereotyping. Indeed, for ten of those years I helped run a large scale anti-bigotry program for the ADL in Southern California whose main purpose was to train educators on how to teach tolerance and acceptance of differences (training well over 100,000 teachers locally).
To acknowledge that we perceive differences (unlike Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert who “doesn’t see color”) and that we may be put off or uncomfortable with what we see is, generally, simply being honest. Our natural/human inclination is to perceive “in-groups” (those like us) and “out groups.” To deny that reality is to live in a make believe world and run the risk of being piously and obnoxiously self righteous with those who are honest; a position in which NPR has now placed itself.
The only test that really matters is how we manage those natural inclinations. Do we have the cognitive tools to hold our visceral tendencies in check and treat people for who they are and not how they look or worship? How we end up acting, not thinking, is what matters. We all need to have little Jiminy Crickets on our shoulders reminding us what the right thing to do is—-we don’t need faux shrinks challenging our innermost anxieties and thoughts trying to analyze how genuine we are, even when we “do the right thing”.
Juan Williams is no more a bigot for having been honest about his thoughts than Jimmy Carter was an adulterer (Christine O’Donnell notwithstanding) for having admitted to “lusting” in his heart. Or Rev. Jesse Jackson is a bigot for admitting that when he walks down the street and hears footsteps and starts thinking about robbery, that he’s relieved when he looks around and sees somebody white. Their honesty was unusual and refreshing, as was Williams’.
Speaking openly about difficult issues involving race, religion and similar divisive issues is challenging—-it’s infinitely easier to invoke platitudes and purport to feel and sing kumbaya; punishing someone (as NPR has done) for daring to be honest about his thoughts, and only his thoughts, involving race or religion sets back honest dialogue and is deplorable.
October 20, 2010 | 1:15 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
are hard to earn. Anyone who receives one is forever described as “Pulitzer Prize winner….” It’s a distinct and, almost always, well-deserved honor. It’s special to receive one, rare to receive two, and almost unheard of to receive three. Tom Friedman of The New York Times is one of the unheard of triple Pulitzer winners. His column in today’s Times,
Just Knock It Off
, demonstrates why.
It reflects his insight, historical view and courage. It is a wonderful piece displaying at the same time concern and sympathy for Israel and its challenges in the Middle East, while urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to show courage and defy his right wing cabinet members to pursue the chance of meaningful peace talks with Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. Friedman writes, “Abbas is weak and acts weaker. Netanyahu is strong and acts weak. And it is time for all the outsiders who spoil them to find another hobby.
It’s a column that reflects Friedman’s long experience and immersion in Middle East politics and the complex realities of that region. It’s not the simplistic black and white portrayal of good guys and bad guys that too often passes for discussion of Israel-Palestinian relations.
His column and analysis is brave because he well knows the onslaught that will come from the reflexive hard, pro-Israel far right that will see the piece as further evidence of Friedman’s “duplicity and disloyalty.”
I recall all too well in the Fall of 1996 when I headed the ADL office in LA and we had invited Tom Friedman to be the keynote speaker at the League’s annual dinner dance. At that time Friedman had only won two Pulitzers but, of course, had his twice a week column in the Times. Nevertheless, the League, its national director and I were attacked, locally and nationally, by the Zionist Organization of America’s head, Mort Klein, for “providing a platform” to Friedman (as if someone who has a semi-weekly column on the op/ed page of The New York Times needed a “platform”).
Friedman was described by Klein as one “regularly defames Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” Friedman, the argument went, should be persona non grata at any organization that considered itself pro-Israel (the words of then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s director of communications, who also weighed in by attacking Friedman and the dinner invitation).
Needless to say, despite having fax machines and voice mail gummed up with ignorant and often hostile faxes and messages, the dinner went off splendidly with but a few protestors picketing the Century Plaza Hotel. Friedman was well aware of the kerfuffle and proceeded with his speech as if nothing untoward had happened; just the way he writes his pieces.
That was not the first, nor the last time that his analysis has been attacked and his bona fides questioned. Despite the occasional harassment, he “calls it as he sees it,” and more often than not, as today, he’s right on the money.
October 7, 2010 | 4:38 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
The news over the past few days offered distressing images of the harassment that the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was subjected to when they buried the young soldier in 2006. As most Americans know by now, the Phelps family of Topeka, Kansas and members of their fundamentalist church carried signs and called out epithets with the message that God is punishing America and its troops because of the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The signs included, “Thank God for IEDs” (improvised explosive devices) and other generalized protest signs plus “personal, targeted epithets directed at the Snyder family.” Additionally, the Phelps posted messages on their website that accuse the Marine’s father of having raised his son “to defy the creator” and “serve the devil.”
It’s hard to imagine many folks who aren’t disgusted by this behavior and the crass effort to exploit the grief of mourning parents to garner attention for the Phelps family’s hateful message. And yet, there are constitutional issues that impose serious hurdles to allowing monetary damages to the Snyder family for emotional distress they suffered. The trial court ruling that awarded them $11 million was overturned by the Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds (hence the appeal to the Supreme Court).
The Los Angeles Times reported on yesterday’s Supreme Court debate and offered a brief glimpse into the marvel of our divided government and its unmatched system of a truly independent, respected and obeyed judiciary. The Times quoted from a dialogue between Justice Stephen Breyer and Margie Phelps—the daughter of the offending minister and also his counsel. Justice Breyer unabashedly stated that, “What I’m trying to accomplish is to allow this tort to exist [the Marine’s family right to sue for emotional distress], but not allow it to interfere with an important public message.”
The entire Court discussion is a fascinating example of our government at its very best—- civil, intellectual and honest debate of weighty issues with forthright give and take. The discussion is almost dramatic because of the obvious commitment of the justices to principles that constrain what they would “like to accomplish.”
The debate is a reminder of how complex issues of this type are and how vapid most of the political debate is that occurs (especially in an election year) around equally difficult issues in our society. Complex issues get reduced to slogans and simple black and white characterizations, the nuance and thoughtfulness that the Supreme Court argument demonstrated rarely appears in Congressional debates, to say nothing of the charades that pass for discussion on the local level.
I suspect this is not an infrequent occurrence at the Supreme Court, but I also imagine that the contrast between the visceral response of what most people would like to have happen and the constraints of the Constitution is rarely so stark. It is impressive to witness the justices’ anguish in grappling with their desire to do justice and their obligation to adhere to principles that may conflict with that intent.
It’s a striking reminder of the vitality and intellectual richness of the Supreme Court and the quality of its deliberations—-especially as contrasted with so much that passes for “discourse” in our political bodies.
Take a look at the record, it’s worth it.
October 5, 2010 | 3:31 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Tens of thousands of people gathered this past weekend in Washington, D.C. under the banner of One Nation Working Together
with the avowed aim of “building a more united America—-with jobs, justice and education for all.” A benign goal with which very few could disagree.
The rally, addressed by the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and a variety of leaders of organized labor and progressive organizations hammered home the message of “jobs, justice and education.”
The rally received widespread media coverage, most of it straight reportage of who was there, what they said, and when they said it. What most, but not all, of the coverage missed was the decision by the march sponsors to extend the approved list of endorsers to virtually any organization that simply said they agreed with the rally’s goals.
This “big tent” notion of collaboration sounds wonderful in theory but in the real world of politics and extremism doesn’t work and, in fact, can be dangerous.
A brief review of the some 400 organizations that are listed as “Endorsing Organizations” on theOne Nation Working Together
website reveals both the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition.
These two groups alone demonstrate the folly of the rally leaders’ decision.
The CPUSA and ANSWER are extremist organizations that have demonstrated again and again their warped agendas and their support for, and links to, dictators, repressive regimes and terrorist groups around the world. They are interested in “justice, jobs and education for all” when it suits their larger ideological aims; when that is no longer the case, those goals will be discarded and ignored in an instant.
“Justice” was neither the watchword in Communist regimes of the past century nor of Lebanon and Gaza where ANSWER’s friends (Hamas and Hezbollah) prevail.
The history of the twentieth century is littered with individuals and organizations which paid heavy prices for thinking they could make alliances with extremists and radicals who, seemingly, shared a bit of their agenda. If there is one clear lesson from the tragedies of the past century, it is that one can’t ally with extremists and radicals, because they don’t play by the same rules moderates do. They keep allies so long as they are useful and they exploit any hint of legitimacy for their own awful ends.
For NAACP head Benjamin Jealous (one of the rally’s key sponsors and spokesmen) to say about the event and its endorsers, “This is a big tent and anyone who wants to stand up to create jobs and defend the jobs of teachers, police officers, nurses, firefighters——I say come on and join us,” betrays either naiveté, his youth, or a hidden, unfortunate, agenda. He is quoted by The New York Times as saying, “That did not mean that the organizers agreed with all the policies of every group that endorsed the rally.”One sure would hope not!
In his desire to swell the ranks of demonstrators he, wittingly or unwittingly, aided the crazies. His group’s and the March’s accomplishments can and will accrue to the benefit of extremists who made the “Endorsing Organizations” list.
For decades, an understanding prevailed among mainstream American political leaders—- ostracize the extremists, no matter how tempting such alliances might be. The Republicans, after some flirtation, steered clear of the John Birch Society and the Democrats treated the Communists like the plague. Bigots were eschewed by both parties with regularity and consistency.
Now come some new rules as enunciated by the NAACP’s Jealous, “We welcome them because they endorse our views…even if we don’t endorse theirs.”
If these groups weren’t officially listed as “Endorsing Organizations” one could make the case that the March organizers had no obligation to go out of their way to distance themselves from crazy groups that want a free ride. But once the March officially sanctioned them, the game changed.
There are certain groups—-the CPUSA and the ANSWER Coalition (there may be others in the list of 400 “endorsers”) among them—- that are so vile, their lack of commitment to principle so apparent, their ideological dishonesty so manifest and their track record of wreckage so obvious that to not ostracize them is to commit a political sin.
How self righteous or effective can liberal critics be of right wing groups who fail to ostracize racists and militia-like folks? Even several Tea Party leaders have distanced themselves from racists and extremists who sought to join up; they could simply have answered their critics, in a mirror of Jealous, “We don’t endorse all their views, we just agree with them on less government and lower taxes.”
It shouldn’t work for them and it doesn’t work for the Saturday marchers!
Allowing extremists to acquire some legitimacy by associating with mainstream organizations—whether it’s the NAACP or organized labor or children’s’ advocacy groups—-is a tragic mistake. The Communists and ANSWER folks will exploit this moment and gain adherents by touting the fact that they “marched with and were part of” a demonstration featuring mainline groups with a storied history of accomplishments; they will simply assert “how bad could we be?”
Leaders of the left and the right in this country, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to William F. Buckley knew to stay away from the political edges—-some among us seem not to remember that valued tradition.