Perceptions Shape Reality

So, did you hear this one?  Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis walk into a bar.  The bartender looks up and — well I don’t really have a joke with a punch line here, although it would be fun to come up with something along those lines.

However, they all do have something in common, along with Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and in a way, John Boehner, soon to be the former Speaker of the House.  I pledged to myself that I would not comment on the current state of affairs regarding the run up to the 2016 presidential election until sometime next year.  It’s the silly season when marginal candidates make outrageous claims and promises and the field has yet to be winnowed to those serious candidates that have an actual chance to lead our nation.  (For example, four years ago at about this time it was all about “nine, nine, nine.”  How did that turn out?)

None-the-less there is a definite trend in the air.  Together Trump, Fiorina, and Carson get over 50% combined in the current polls for the Republican nominee.  Sanders, who when he started his campaign did not himself expect to get much traction, is giving Hillary Clinton a serious run in the early going. What does this tell us?  I am not sure — but to state the obvious, I think it reflects a serious message to the other, qualified, candidates that the electorate is unhappy with the way things are going.  I am not sure that it is truly a desire to “hire an outsider.”  It is more a message to the current crop of politicians on both sides of the aisle that if they cannot, or will not do their jobs, then the electorate will look for someone who can.

To me, this is reinforced by the reaction to Pope Francis during his recent visit.  Whatever one thinks of his religious views or whether or not he is too “political” (as I noted in an earlier post, I don’t think he is political but rather pastoral), one must agree that the outpouring of positive response to him as a man, by Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers alike, shows that a vast number of people are looking for someone who cares about them as individuals and for someone who brings a message of caring and hope.  Hope for them in their daily lives and hope that our future can be better. Even Speaker Boehner has reflected this (look up his comments about the “jackass” in his party and the “false prophets” in his party), now that he is not bound by party duty and can speak his mind.

This paints a picture for me that the candidate that can provide a vision for the future that is positive, yet specific — enough with the vague platitudes! — has the best chance of capturing his/her party’s nomination and indeed, of capturing the presidency.

What I worry about is that we are reaping what we have sown over the last 6 years plus.  In other words, politicians have been complaining about how bad, ineffective and dysfunctional government is these days.  They have been complaining to such a degree that maybe people are beginning to believe it.  The same politicians that barrage us with negatives about our government and our place in the world (which face it folks, if we are so bad off why are none of the complainers moving to another country) are not doing so well in the polls. They may have done such a good job painting a picture of disaster that they are now in the throes of having to recognize that maybe the electorate considers them as part of the problem.  They have painted such negative perceptions of government that they are now living in the reality of being part of the problem.  As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, they will be “hoist with his own petard.”

At the same time I do not understand why it would be a badge of honor — a selling point for gaining votes — to proclaim that as a candidate that they are complete outsiders with no government experience what-so-ever.  I would guess that Trump and Fiorina as CEOs would not hire a new CEO for a major corporation that has absolutely no experience in business at all.  And be proud of it.  While I get the “outsider” appeal, I also believe in the American people.  It is one thing to attend a rally, answer a poll question over a year before the election, and display other expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and quite another to actually vote for one of the “outsiders.”  I have no idea who will be the Republican or Democrat nominee for president, but I have a pretty good idea who it will not be.

There is a ray of hope.  The politicians also should think about this.  A recent survey done by the Democrat Party (don’t dismiss it out of hand — it was not just a survey of Democrats but rather a cross-section of voters) and obtained by the Washington Post  indicates that most voters are not in favor of a smaller government.  They are in search of a more effective federal government.  Fifty-six percent of the respondents said that they were “very” or “somewhat” confident in the government to do the right thing. The top five answers to the question “what is wrong with the federal government” reflect that the electorate is most concerned that it is “corrupt” (23%), “inefficient” (18%), “out of touch” (17%), “wasteful” (14%), and “too big” (9%).  To me this means that most people don’t worry about the size of government, they worry that it does not reflect the nation as a whole, and only is responsive to big donors and lobbyists.

Perhaps the cliché that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” applies here.  The factions that are currently making the most noise on the campaign trail are getting the most attention.  But, I do not think that most voters are single issue voters.  In the general election the voters take the full measure of the person running for office — their personality, knowledge, leadership and position on a full range of issues. The candidates that recognize this and put forward honest answers and specific plans as to how they will make the federal government more responsive will have the best chance to win.  And to help our country.

The Real Meaning of Politics

Yesterday Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress.  In my view his speech, and indeed his entire visit thus far, was extraordinary.  Not just in seeing a Pope addressing Congress, although that alone was indeed extraordinary.  And not just in seeing the overwhelming positive reaction he elicits from celebrities and regular citizens, rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  It was in his message.

(As a footnote, we should note that he was not the first head of a religion to address a joint session of Congress.  Queen Elizabeth II was the first when she addressed Congress in May 1991 as she is the titular head of the Church of England.  Similarly, Pope Francis is also the titular head of state of the Vatican, which adds diplomatic overtones to the visit and resultant ceremonies.  But I digress.)

Some people may focus on his remarks at the welcoming ceremony at the White House and his remarks to Congress as being too “political.”  I disagree.  His public comments are not political, they are pastoral and totally in keeping with the long-held traditions of the Catholic church, and dare I say it, the Bible.  I had the opportunity to watch his entire speech live (you may find a transcript here) and thought it engaging, knowledgeable, and entirely within his “lane” as the current punditry likes to use the term. Likewise, he was animated in his delivery, which means to me that not only did he believe in what he was saying, but that despite speaking in a language that is not his own, he understood the subtleties of what he was saying.

Even though this is his first ever visit to the United States, as a life long citizen of the Americas, he understands the United States and the traditions of the Western Hemisphere.  It was a well thought out speech that understood the historical touchstones of this nation.  Rather than focusing on the individual policies and hot button issues of his speech, I took away that his over all message was one of reconciliation and an admonition that politics, to accomplish anything, means that there must be compromise for the common good.  Additionally, he gently reminded the members of Congress before him that they were not there for their own good, but rather for the good of the nation.  Or as he said right at the beginning of his remarks:

“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

His remarks are particularly cogent given events today.  As I write, the Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he would step down as Speaker, and resign his seat in the House, at the end of October.  We have yet to hear from him personally (I am sure we will before the day is over), but those who heard the announcement in a closed-door Republican caucus meeting said that it was because of the divisiveness of his own party — in particular the roughly 30 or so Tea Party Republicans that have no desire to compromise on anything.  They are interested in their agenda rather than the essence of politics — as even the Pope understood — which is to compromise and, as Pope Francis said in his speech “(b)uilding a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best.”

“To do our best.”  What a concept.  I am disappointed that the tremendous atmosphere of good will and positive outlooks evident in the Pope’s visit yesterday — and it was clear that many of the Representatives and Senators in the chamber during the speech were moved by it — has evaporated in less than 24 hours.

I, among others, have been critical of Speaker Boehner and his leadership style.  However, his stepping down is likely to make things in our Congress even more chaotic and divisive.  The Tea Party element of the Congress will probably celebrate his departure and see it as some kind of victory for their viewpoint. They are aiming for another shutdown of the government, an outcome that the serious leaders in the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, are seeking to avoid.  We shall see if they are succesful as things unfold.

None-the-less, such developments are the antithesis of the Pope’s message. Already seemingly lost is his plea to the Congress, and through them to all of us as citizens, that we remember our history and our purpose as a nation.  As he put it:

“I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”

Pope Francis knows the real essence of politics.  I hope that in some way, our representatives, the candidates now vying for our votes for president, and each of us as citizens remembers that we are all here together and can only achieve our greatness by working for common goals.

“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”


Sincere, But Just Plain Wrong

Rowan County (Kentucky) Clerk Kim Davis remains in jail over her contempt of court citation for refusing to issue marriage licenses in her county.  She refuses because she does not want to issue them for same-sex marriages.  Doing so, she believes, would violate her Christian convictions. However one views the issue of same-sex marriage, we should respect Ms. Davis and her willingness to go to jail for what she believes.  Likewise, regardless of how we view same-sex marriages, we should be very concerned about the way her case is being used by politicians shouting about separation of church and state and stating that she is being denied her rights and that she is being persecuted for her religious beliefs. Shame on them.  She is absolutely not being persecuted for her religious beliefs and it shows that those politicians (I’m looking at you Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and others) are either using her for blatant political reasons, or are shamefully unaware of the Constitution they say they support, and indeed would be obligated to follow should they win the election.

If Ms. Davis has true religious beliefs that prohibit her from fulfilling her duties (and I have no doubt that she is sincere), then as an elected official sworn to uphold the law, she should resign.  End of discussion.  She has exhausted her ability within the law to keep from issuing the licenses that it is her duty to do.  Protest all she likes.  Work to change the law.  Carry out her privileges as a citizen, but do so as a private citizen, not a sworn official of the county.  Tellingly, the United States Supreme Court chose not to hear her appeal.  They did so without comment, which means  that none of the nine Justices thought that she had any legal ground to stand on — including those Justices that voted against allowing same-sex marriages under the Constitution.  Game over.

The deputies to the County Clerk began issuing licenses last week after Ms. Davis went to jail for contempt of court for refusing to follow the law and the instructions of the judge.  It is undetermined how long she will stay in jail, but she could be out today if she would either agree to carry out the duties she swore to uphold, or resign.  If one takes her logic to its end, then we would ultimately be a nation without laws.  She claims that she answers to a higher power and therefore does not have to follow the law of the land as it is superseded by her religious convictions.  It takes very little imagination to think what would happen should everyone of every conceivable religion take the same position.  Our country would fall into chaos.

As a reminder, the First Amendment was written to keep the state (in this case Ms. Davis, I’m sorry to inform you that the state is you) from imposing a particular religion or religious belief on any citizen. It was a reaction to the British crown imposing the Church of England on its citizens in the original thirteen colonies.  By the early 1700’s in those colonies, for example, there was no recognized Catholic parish or church.  They did not re-appear until 1789 (the ratification of the Constitution).  Here is what the amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

No one is keeping her from exercising her religious beliefs.  They are only keeping her from imposing her religion on others.  This is a huge difference.  Those that argue that freedom of religion is being inhibited by our government should visit China, Iran, North Korea or a dozen other countries to find out what it really means to lose one’s ability to practice their religion.

Statements such as this one from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — posted on his campaign website — show that Ms. Davis’ situation is being deliberately distorted, or else Senator Cruz really did not learn much from his Ivy League law school and time as clerk to Chief Justice Rehnquist on the Supreme Court.

Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America.

I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally. I stand with every American that the Obama Administration is trying to force to choose between honoring his or her faith or complying with a lawless court opinion.

Using words like “tyranny” and arresting a “Christian woman” for her faith may be red meat to his ardent supporters, but they do little to promote either the rule of law or religious freedom (oh by the way Senator,  there may be other devout followers of one God who are not Christian).  What is he saying? That we should do away with the Supreme Court?  That no one has to follow their decisions if one doesn’t agree with them?  What is he really saying?  And he will “support and defend the Constitution” by telling people to ignore it?  If he, and others, have a strong view that laws need to be changed, then use the system to change them.

Mike Huckabee — the former governor of Arkansas and running for president — said yesterday that one only has to follow the court’s orders if “it’s right.”  Who decides if it is right?  Mr. Huckabee?  Kim Davis? Me?  While I understand his concerns and those of others about defending the right to freedom of religion in our country, I have to say that as an individual, I do not feel threatened in the practice of my religion.  We truly need watch dogs that continually challenge the government on issues fundamental to our freedoms and our way of life.  But touting anarchy and setting themselves up as the sole judge of what is right and wrong — as Mr. Huckabee, Senator Cruz, and others do — seems to me to be a greater threat to my freedoms than anything the Supreme Court has done.

Ms. Davis may be sincere, but she is just plain wrong. She should resign and then she may protest and work to change the law in any legal way that she can.  I, for one, will work against the demagogues that set themselves up as arbiters of what is right and wrong for the rest of us based on their personal beliefs — or based on what their political ambitions tell them will “sell”.  That to me is a far greater danger.

Searching For A Better Life

I recently returned from a vacation tour through Europe.  We were fortunate enough to travel from Budapest, Hungary to Amsterdam, Netherlands and had a great time.  It was interesting on many levels — history, culture, fellow travelers, all of it.  As always when traveling overseas, of course, it also reminded me of how lucky I am to live in the United States.  For all of our troubles and differences of opinions, at least in my lifetime, we have been incredibly fortunate.

This was brought home in one way by the opportunity to visit cities and towns throughout central Europe that were occupied by the Soviets, Nazis, or both.  As I am always reminded, it is one thing to learn history from a book, and quite another to talk to people who lived through the experiences. To these people, it is still a living history.  In the former communist states of Hungary and Slovakia, the rebuilding from World War II is nearly complete.  Construction was delayed for decades because of the Soviet occupation and the reluctance or lack of caring (or both) to put any thought or effort into rebuilding locally important buildings.  While the Soviets (and local regimes) obviously built structures during the period leading up to 1989, they did so without regard to historic local norms, desires or long-standing culture.  And, not to put too fine of a point on it, but what they did build is down right ugly.

In Austria and Germany the scars of World War II remain.  Perhaps not so much with respect to rebuilding cities, but with their history.  Indeed, we were told that the now famous museum in Nuremberg retelling the story of Hitler’s rise and rule — used to educate German youth of the horrors of that period — was not built until 2002.  According to our guide, it could not have been built any earlier because no one wanted to confront that chapter of German history.  Only the younger generation could face the facts.  Many of the medieval cities along the Main and Rhine Rivers had to be rebuilt as they were mostly 90% or more destroyed by Allied bombing.  For the locals this was just a fact — not something raised in acrimony — although they often pointed out that there was no tactical or operational reason for the bombing.  There was only the strategic goal of breaking the will of the people through sheer helplessness.  We have not experienced anything like that since the 1860’s.

Likewise, it was with helplessness that many in these countries watched the flow of thousands upon thousands of people from the Middle East into Europe.  We have seen the reports on  the news here in the U.S., but again, in Europe they are living the reality of the situation.  It is a tragedy seemingly without a solution.  Hundreds, if not thousands, have died making the attempt to get to safety, primarily by sea to Greece where they then try to move on to wealthier nations.  The European Union is grappling with how to deal with the situation.  Provide humanitarian assistance and it probably entices more people to make the dangerous run.  Do nothing to help them and thousands of people suffer and die.

From a distance, the most interesting discussion involved what to call these people.  Perhaps that discussion is relevant to our own political debates in the run-up to the 2016 elections.  The question was whether they were “migrants,” “refugees” “asylum seekers” or “immigrants.”  The question is more than one of semantics as under international law and under the standards of humanitarian treatment, how they are categorized makes a difference in how nations should, and will, deal with them.  To those making the dangerous trek however, it may matter little.  It is a problem that is only going to continue to grow as the civil war in Syria continues, and ISIS and other groups operate in the Middle East.  Without solving that root problem, the mass migration, the largest since World War II according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will continue.

In 1980’s I had two experiences with people fleeing what must have been intolerable conditions. I still think about them to this day.  They were on a smaller scale than those going on today in Europe, but in some ways are even more unbelievable.  Today’s refugees leaving the Middle East for Europe take boats across the Mediterranean Sea headed for Europe.  It is very dangerous and they are horribly mistreated by smugglers profiting from the endeavor.  But they have a destination in mind and a relatively short trip.  In the early 80’s refugees were leaving Viet Nam in small boats heading out to sea. No destination, per se — they were just hoping that a passing freighter (or their greatest hope, a U.S. Navy ship) would spot them and pick them up.  Some made it, some did not. There is no real way of knowing because those that didn’t make it were lost at sea without a trace.  Those that got picked up ended up all over the Pacific because most ships would continue to their destinations before off-loading those they had picked up.  On two different USN ships I was part of the ship’s company that picked up some of these refugees.  We were not on any mission to do so, it was purely luck or providence that we spotted them adrift at sea as we proceeded through the area.  Of the several occasions, it was nearly always the same. We would spot a rickety non-sea worthy vessel of about 50 feet adrift with upwards of 75 or 80 people on board. Usually those on board consisted of a couple of extended families (babies to grand parents) from the same geographic area. They were out of fuel and food and nearly out of water. They had nothing but the clothes on their back as in each case pirates intercepted the boats before we did and took everything of value from the people — including pulling teeth with silver or gold fillings. There were rarely young women on board as the pirates took them too.

Unbelievable.  To this day I ask myself how bad things would have to be to put my entire extended family in a non-sea worthy boat and push out to sea with no destination and only a vague hope that a friendly ship would stop and help us.  And the odds were that no one would see us.   I cannot imagine risking the lives of my entire family in such a way.  I still think about it.

(As a footnote, I later served on ships where some of the new crew members reporting aboard were babies or small children on those boats rescued at sea in the early 80’s by U.S. Navy ships.  Only in America.)

In the late 1980’s my ship was operating in the Caribbean Sea on a mission unrelated to the migration then taking place from Haiti.  The U.S. Coast Guard was actively involved in rescuing those migrants, also in flimsy boats, from the sea.  They would take the refugees to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they would be processed by Immigration and State Department personnel and then generally returned to Haiti.  Pure chaos. Again what came through was the overwhelming desperation of the people.  While we were not directly involved in that operation, we were certainly able to observe at close hand how difficult it was to effect the rescues on a mass scale and then to humanely treat the people once they reached shore while still trying to maintain some degree of orderliness and safety.  It is an extremely difficult task.

I can only imagine what is going on at sea and ashore in Europe as the numbers of people flowing into Europe dwarf anything that I participated in or observed.  A very tough situation.

We are so lucky in so many ways.  As partisan divides emerge, I trust that all of us will realize how lucky we are compared to so many in this world — past and present.