Friday, December 3, 2010


December 2, 2010

"It is of vital importance to the defendant and to the community that any decision to impose the death sentence be, and appear to be, based on reason rather than caprice and emotion."
John Paul Stevens, who retired from the Supreme Court last term at age 90, wrote those words in 1977, in the majority opinion on the case Gardner v. Florida. In his freshman term the year before, he had voted with the majority in allowing a 1972 Court-imposed national moratorium on executions to lapse, expressing his belief — and hope — that closely restricted parameters and rigorously enforced procedures would guarantee "evenhanded, rational and consistent imposition of death sentences under law." By the end of his 34-year tenure, however, he had concluded that caprice and emotion in regard to capital punishment are so endemic within the judicial system and popular attitudes that rationality and consistency are in almost every case impossible.
Stevens' evolution — I'm not sure that is the right word for it — can be gleaned from his review of the book Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, a comparison of American and European approaches to capital punishment by the British legal scholar David Garland, appearing in the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books and available on-line at Garland's thesis as outlined by Stevens is that in most of Europe, strong governments abolished the death penalty after World War II despite popular support for it, eventually swaying a majority of citizens to embrace abolition as a mark of civilized society; in the United States, by contrast, the "tradition of community-level executions dating to colonial times [and] frontier beliefs in meeting violence with violence" shaped state and local policy to favor capital punishment, while "the more politicized bureaucracy and the relatively weak national parties" were "inadequate to the task of overriding public support."
Thus, in its 1972 moratorium decision, Furman v. Georgia,the Supreme Court deferred to the states, leaving them to revise their statutes to conform to the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, to "narrow the category of death- eligible offenses while enforcing procedural safeguards against the risk that facts unrelated to moral culpability would affect sentencing."
While the Court did succeed in reining in the most egregious aberrations — "eliminating categories of defendants (juveniles and mentally retarded) and offenses (rape and unintentional killings) from exposure to capital punishment nationwide" — the strictures Stevens endorsed from the beginning were subsequently undermined by "the regrettable judicial activism" of more recent appointees, whom he respectfully leaves unnamed. Particularly, he cites three significant reversals of prior Supreme Court decisions which (1) had banned victim-impact statements as inflammatory and peripheral to the facts of the case; (2) had forbidden the exclusion of prospective jurors on the basis of their opposition to the death penalty; and (3) had eliminated seeking the death penalty for accomplices to a murder. In addition, he cites the failure of the Court in 1987 to mandate reform of the Georgia judicial system, in which murderers of Whites were sentenced to death eleven times more frequently than murderers of Blacks.
It is not that Stevens' initial position had changed over the years. The imposition of death remained for him a legitimate prerogative of the state under the Constitution. But, as he argued in Gardner, "the action of the sovereign in taking the life of one of its citizens ... differs dramatically from any other legitimate state action" and thus must be held to the highest and most dispassionate of standards — standards which, given the pressures from a society which in Garland's words has a "fascination with death" and revenge are in almost every instance impossible to achieve.
Concurring for the most part with Garland, Stevens contends that arguments for capital punishment based on deterrence are specious, lacking any statistical proof; that the prolonged and expensive process of trial and appeal in capital cases imposes a "monumental" burden on the judicial system; that the very possibility of executing the wrong person makes the finality of the death penalty abhorrent; that the argument for "retributive justice" — revenge — is inherently emotive, thwarting rational criteria; and that the practice in many states of electing prosecutors and judges makes them more likely to seek or impose the death penalty "for political or cultural purposes."
Unlike religious positions against capital punishment — "only God can take a life" — which de facto alienate both nonbelievers and eye-for-an-eye radicals on the opposite religious side — Stevens' argument, formed over decades of experience, is purely practical: The death penalty is, as he wrote in a 2008 opinion, "the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernable social or public purposes."
An argument for reason.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


November 25, 2010

If you were sensitive about your looks in the past as you returned to your folks' home for Thanksgiving and presented yourself before the groaning board, your imagination will run positively amok this year as you present yourself to the full- body scanner at the airport. My God, what do I look like to these Transportation Safety Administration officers checking the X-rays in their secluded room? Are they having a good laugh, refining their jokes about Mr. Flab or Big Sister, Piano Legs or Plucked Turkey? Will they mistake love-handles for plastic explosives? Will they send me over to the Pat-down Department? If so, couldn't the Patter be cute?
The screen-machines may inflict mild trauma on some, and they'll bring their stress home for the holidays: Are my sags and bulges providing a pinch of levity to the living-room conversation while I'm in the kitchen helping mom with the cooking? Is old Uncle Lear out there secretly longing to do a pat-down?
Oh, and think about the return trip, after you've stuffed yourself with stuffing and had a weekend's worth of leftovers, those delectable baby onions in heavy cream, those big turkey sandwiches with gobs of mayonnaise, that butter-laden pecan pie. Won't the scanning crew have a ball with your body then?
The anxiety doesn't stop with scanners. On National Public Radio's Morning Edition on Tuesday, a TSA official took questions on carry-on items. Are pumpkin pies allowed? Yes. What about my traditional cranberry sauce? No. Explosives must perform better in gelatin than in custard.
Terrorism really works. We're all half-crazy now.
Those $100,000 scanners and the prodding prison pat-downs are just the latest reaction-response to the endlessly innovative mind of the terrorist. First the pocket knives, then the liquids, then the shoes: You try it, we'll head it off. The latest obsession is what could be under the underwear, and as we saw last month, it never really ends; now it's wired-up toner cartridges. Maybe for the holidays they'll bury a bomb in a fruitcake — not even an X-ray could pierce those dense bricks.
All this is enough to make you say to hell with it: Air travel is so revoltingly demeaning now that I won't put myself through it anymore. If I can't get there by car or train, I won't go anywhere; I'll spend the holidays with my neighbors and have a nice Skype visit with the family far away.
That may not be such a bad thing. Our culture, infuriated by flying, may return to the life of the pre-airline era, when holidays brought together people down the street or in the next apartment for feast and fun, a time for relaxation, not agitation. No terror, or terror of terror, just peace and friendship, so different from the anonymity and intrusiveness of the airport.
For the holidays, there may be no place like your own home.


November 11, 2010

The higher the hope, the deeper the disappointment.
Just two years ago, it looked like Morning in the Universe. Late on election night here in the South Bronx, people poured into the streets shouting "O-bam-AH! O-bam-AH!" Halfway across the world, in Germany, the father of a friend of mine told his son, "Er ist der Weltpresident" — "He's the World-President."
It looks a bit different now, even from the horse's mouth. As President Obama told political satirist Jon Stewart, "What I would say is: Yes we can, BUT — but, it's not going to happen overnight."
BUT? Uh-oh.
It's hard to tell whether the Republican comeback in the midterms portends a one-term president, a permanent lame duck. As the historians have pointed out, many other presidents whose party took a drubbing halfway through — Clinton, Reagan, Truman, even Franklin Roosevelt — reclaimed the electorate's confidence and won second terms.
Can this president do it?
The answer may lie in lining up rhetoric with reality.
Remember those heady first days of the administration — the conciliatory speech to the Muslim world at Cairo, the rapprochement to Cuba at the Summit of the Americas, the "transpartisan" gatherings with Congressional leaders on economic stimulus and health-care reform? Remember the Nobel Peace Prize and the Copenhagen climate-change conference?
Where has it all gone? Thirty-thousand more troops to Afghanistan, deadlock on Palestine, hardly a word or deed on Cuba, no progress on climate, the near-blind eye to post- earthquake Haiti. Domestically, we got an anemic economic stimulus, dithering on the BP blowup, a health-care law that nobody really understands.
The legislative dynamic on health care reveals a great deal. Obama's first mistake was to leave the fashioning of the bill to Congress instead of presenting his own version up front. This came partly from his lingering belief that the sausage-makers could cut a good steak, and also that the chastened Republicans, repudiated and supposedly in disarray, could not hang together. He also underestimated the fractiousness of his own party, all those Blue-Dog Democrats who rode his coattails into office and then promptly jumped off. In hindsight, the better course would have been the incremental — tiny little bills agreeable to all, eliminating pre-existing conditions, closing the "donut hole" in the Medicare drug law — things that, one by one, nobody could deny, and building upon them. What we got was sausage, parts of which almost everyone found indigestible. This, coupled with the Democrats' ramrod passage of the bill by arcane parliamentary procedures, left the public — even some ardent supporters — feeling dispossessed and impotent. From this came the revolt of the masses in the "town hall" meetings in the summer of 2009, and the birth of the Tea Party movement.
Through all this, Obama's rhetorical skills evaporated when it came to interpreting his policies and motivating people to back them. The prophetic did not translate to the pragmatic. Somehow der Weltpresident found himself unable to provide the nation and the world with compelling moral arguments for his proposals; indeed, as his proposals shrank in size and scope, it seemed like he could not even provide compelling moral arguments to himself. Dismissing Gandhi and King, two of his philosophical inspirations, he turned to the "practical theologian " Reinhold Niebuhr, reading him either too closely or too superficially.
It is possible to be both a politician and a prophet, getting things done while giving people hope in a new and better order. Lincoln did it, FDR did it, Obama was poised to do it. But he could not establish the link between the prophetic and the pragmatic, a fact quite evident in the contrast between his speeches and his interviews and press conferences, soaring rhetoric replaced by hesitant hedging.
Never once has he taken on the Tea Party on philosophical grounds, even though as a constitutional lawyer he could best them at every turn. He has let them command the argument, with all of its nonsense about taxation without representation and "taking back the ‘gubment' for the American people." If ever there was a target for a constitutional lawyer, the eye-doctor Ron Paul should be one, but for some reason — not to appear elitist? — he holds his fire.
In 2008, a majority of the American people endorsed his rhetoric of hope. Can he save his presidency by applying it to reality?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


October 28, 2010

When you make a pact with the devil, the devil always wins.
The Faust of the moment is Juan Williams, the political commentator who was fired from National Public Radio last week for a remark he made at his other job as the left-wing provocateur on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. It was a remark that was unexpectedly candid — even to him, I think — and that could have led to fruitful dialogue. Unfortunately for all of us, he made it on Fox News, dialogue's desert.
In a segment entitled, "Danger from the Muslim World," host Bill O'Reilly leadingly asked Williams, "Where am I going wrong there, Juan?" "I think you're right," he replied. "When I get on a 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." Digging himself deeper, he continued, "Now I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week, he said the war with Muslims, America's war, is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts." Uncharacteristically, O'Reilly did not interrupt. He didn't have to: Why hang somebody who's hanging himself? Surprised, it seemed, at his own words, Williams quickly pivoted, taking O'Reilly to task for identifying all Muslims as potential terrorists.
In a reasonable venue, where participants talk with each other instead of at each other — NPR and PBS, for example — Williams might have retained the composure to soberly reflect on what he'd said. But in a format that abhors reflection and values only the juicy bite, that was impossible.
Days later, on ABC's Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos perceptively prodded Williams: "Should you have gone the extra step and said, ‘Listen, they're irrational, these are feelings I fight'?" "Yeah, I could have done that," Williams replied. Reiterating his comment about airports and Muslim clothing, he added, "in the aftermath of 9/11, I am taken aback. I have a moment of fear and it is visceral, it's a feeling .... So to me, it was admitting that I have this notion, this feeling in the immediate moment."
Speaking for myself, I have similar feelings, even though I live in a neighborhood populated by West African Muslims and see the "garb" on the streets every day. I think many, if not most, non-Muslim Americans have these feelings too. They are part of our ongoing 9/11 post-traumatic stress disorder; any little reminder of that disaster triggers them. As Williams himself admitted, these feelings are irrational. It is our collective national principles of justice and civil liberties grounded in the Constitution that have thus far spared us from total surrender to them, yet they have influenced much of our national reaction, from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to the uproar over the "Ground Zero mosque."
It is the irrational, the visceral, the incendiary that governs the panoply of programs on outlets such as Fox News. Williams may have taken that job at Fox with the best intentions, thinking he could inject some reason into the unreasonable. But he ended up leading a double life, sacrificing his integrity as a seasoned, insightful commentator to play O'Reilly's "liberal foil," as a New York Times story described him.
Sucked into the vortex of the visceral, few could escape. Though NPR's decision to sack him was inevitable — long before the present incident, his format-fed flippancy on O'Reilly"undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR," in the words of its press release — the "feeling in the immediate moment" led first to NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller's passive- aggressive recommendation to "take it up with his psychiatrist or his publicist," and then to renewed attacks from the right against public broadcasting and calls to eliminate its federal funding — which, thanks to its enthusiastic listeners and like-minded foundations and corporations, comprises only two percent of NPR's budget.
Right now, Williams is sitting pretty, the unexpected darling of those he has spent most of his career opposing, sweetened all the more with a $2 million contract from Fox News.
But as with Faust, sooner or later the devil will have his due.


October 14, 2010

Cuba has long been a magnet for photographers. The intensity of the island — its natural beauty, its prodigal hedonism and dire poverty, its political volatility — drew photojournalists like Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson to document it extensively in the first half of the twentieth century. When the charismatic and photogenic Fidel Castro and his companions came on the scene in the late 1950's, opportunities for the saleable shot for thirsty news magazines worldwide proved irresistible.
It is that window of utopian hope, wedged between the Fascist totalitarianism of the 1950's and the Communist totalitarianism of the 1960's, that is the subject of "Cuba in Revolution," an exhibit of photograph and film at the International Center of Photography in New York City through January 9, 2011.
The chronology begins with a room devoted exclusively to the work of Constantino Arias, often called "the Cuban Weegee" for the "flash and run" spontaneity of his pictures. He started out in 1941 as a society photographer for the Hotel Nacional in Havana, snapping photos of overdressed matrons, jitterbugging couples, and bloated businessmen from America, liberated from the button-down life in the States and captured at their most uninhibited. Gradually, however, he was drawn to what lay just steps from the swank hotels — the cluttered alleys and tumbledown tenements of the other Havana, the aging prostitutes, sweating pushcart vendors, and most of all, the homeless and hungry. On the first wall you're amused by a full-length shot of a middle- aged American tourist clad only in swimming trunks and a huge sombrero, with a quart of Vat 69 in one hand and a bottle of Bud in the other, teeth clenching a fat cigar; on the opposite wall, you're appalled by the image of an emaciated young woman in a grimy dress, curled like a fetus against the wall of a colonnaded building. On a third wall is a series of photos of the demonstrations at the University of Havana in 1952, students marching with locked arms in one scene, panicked and scattered by water cannon in another. Arias caught the brewing storm.
In the next room, a collection of news photos from 1953 to 1959, Fidel and Che first appear, boyish and beardless in business suits, predating their hairy transformation. Fidel, fresh out of law school, organized a guerilla band and led a symbolic attack on a military barracks in July of 1953. He was captured and imprisoned, and two years later was exiled to Mexico, where he met Ernesto Guevara, an Argentinian physician whose student travels around oppressed Latin America turned him radical. The two snuck into Cuba in 1956, recruited troops, and engaged in increasingly widespread and effective skirmishes with government forces, eventually toppling the Batista regime in 1959. From the beginning, Castro knew well the power of the press and welcomed photographers such as American Andrew St. George to document not only the battles but the humanizing day-to-day life in camp — Fidel reading newspapers in his makeshift study, Che on his cot, stripped to the waist, dreamily sipping yerba mate tea from a ceremonial bowl and straw.
The revolutionaries entered Havana in triumph on January 8, 1959, and the photographers followed, capturing the gesticulating speeches of Fidel and the adoring faces of the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Castro took a prolonged tour of the Western Hemisphere, attempting to build support for his cause. Rebuffed and embargoed by President Dwight Eisenhower, he went to the United Nations in September of 1960, sidling up to the Soviets and infuriating his American hosts with a trip uptown to Harlem to identify himself as a champion of civil rights. St. George captured the mood in a photo of raucous protesters carrying placards reading fidel is welcome in harlem anytime! and u.s. jim crows fidel just like us.
As he settled into leadership, Fidel exploited the camera to solidify his salvific image among Cubans. One room of the exhibit is devoted to "Heroic Portraits." Osvaldo Selar's ultra-closeups of Fidel, one a profile cropped at the eye, slender fingers cradling a cigarette at his lips, every hair of his beard in crisp detail, and a second one backlit to illuminate the cloud of smoke from his cigar, are among the finest in the genre.
Even more sensuous are the photos of Che, surely the sexiest subversive of all time. Among them is Alberto Korda's 1960 shot of Che with beret, taken on the fly yet so quintessentially iconic that, stylized and colorized, the likeness soon turned up as posters, T-shirts, and among the oeuvres of Andy Warhol.
Even death did not detract from Che's photogeneity. When he was executed in Bolivia in 1966, local photographer Freddy Trigo was present when Che's body was displayed to the public as a warning to would-be revolutionaries. An entire room of the exhibit is devoted to his photos of the corpse, laid out on a slab, stripped to the waist as in the yerba mate shot, head propped up, eyes open, staring at the camera: And you thought this was the end of me.
The remaining part of the exhibit features Soviet-style heroic photos of post-revolutionary life, and a strange little section on the already-subversive youth culture of the late 1960's, images of free love and of teens displaying purloined Beatles albums, along with a propaganda short depicting the singers as chimpanzees.
Two other propaganda films are of more interest, one a lengthy "March of Time"-like chronicle of the revolution, another from the mid-1970's showing "mi hermano Fidel" dropping in on a blind old campesino and ordering him a new home, a pension, and free health care. "Socialism," he tells him (and the viewers), "has something more to do for you."
The exhibit is an extraordinary reminder of the power of the image to shape the attitudes of a nation and the world. Fidel, still before the camera 50 years later, knew that from the start.


October 7, 2010

If there's any word to describe the American political scene today, it's "myopic" — no forest, only trees. Confined to their own little boxes of self-interest and fear, most politicians and many of their constituents can't see the Big Picture, can't connect the dots between one issue and another.
Take the Mexican drug wars, for example.
The conflicts among the cartels, which have left 28,000 dead over the last four years, are fueled by arms primarily supplied by dealers in the United States. Yet there is no political will to shut off the supply. As The Washington Post reported recently, "Some 7,000 gun stores operate along the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are not required to notify authorities even if an individual buys dozens of assault weapons in a short period. In fiscal 2009 U.S. agents revoked the licenses of just 11 stores for violations. Once the guns are purchased — usually by ‘straw' buyers acting on behalf of cartel middlemen — they are easily trafficked across the border."
Reinstating the ban on the sale of assault weapons, which expired in 2004, would eliminate 80 percent of the estimated 5,000 AK-47s and similar firearms crossing the border every year. But Congress, ever in the thrall of the National Rifle Association, has been unable to pass such legislation. Even President Obama, once a forceful champion of the ban during the campaign, has retreated from his promise, despite pleas from Mexican President Felipe Calderón himself. What makes the most sense evokes the least action.
Then there are the dots between the drug producers, the drug runners, and the drug buyers and users. U.S. drug policy has focused primarily — and unsuccessfully — on shutting off the supply of drugs from abroad while doing little to decrease the demand here. A number of international think-tanks, such as the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, consider the so-called "war on drugs" a failure and recommend treating drug abuse as a public health issue, not a crime. Legalizing marijuana, which the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates comprises 60 percent of the Mexican drug cartels' business, may be far more effective in gutting them than interdict. As Jorge G. Castañeda, formerly foreign minister of Mexico and now a professor at New York University, and historian Héctor Aguilar Camín wrote in The Washington Post last month: "Legalization would make a significant chunk of that business vanish. As their immense profits shrank, the drug kingpins would be deprived of the almost unlimited money they now use to fund recruitment, arms purchases and bribes." They argue that passing California's Proposition 19, which would allow the private use, cultivation, and sale of marijuana, could effectively evaporate one of the cartels' major markets.
The dots are all over the map. They lie beyond borders. Connecting them demands understanding that it's not just us, it's all of us.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


September 23, 2010

Forget Costa Rica. Forget the Bahamas. Forget Mexico for sure. It's Cuba we're all longing to see. The land of Cugat and Arnaz, of Hemingway and the Buena Vista Social Club, of vintage cars and rollicking bars. Not to mention baseball.
Fidel's little admission recently made to a reporter from Atlantic magazine — and then quickly retracted — that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore" was soon followed by his brother Raúl's announcement that a whopping half a million people on the government payroll would be dismissed by next March, leaving them to find or create their own jobs in a loosened-up private sector. Equally whopping was his estimate that there are yet another half-million state employees who do virtually nothing and will also be released in time.
"We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working," President Raúl Castro wryly noted.
Talk about transparency. Such admissions, and such concrete proposals with hard numbers and even a fixed date, you seldom get from any leader, much less any "dictator." Something's happening on that island, and this is just the beginning.
Details of the plan are thus far sketchy — what the hell do you do with 500,000 newly unemployed? — but the outline released by the government last week gives a good hint of it: Some small state-run businesses like light manufacturing will be turned into private "cooperatives" owned and operated by their employees; this will absorb 200,000 workers. The remainder will be expected to find work on their own, mostly as small-scale entrepreneurs like taxi drivers, plumbers, farmers, and, as the document cited, wine-makers and massage therapists. The government apparently will not assist them in starting up these enterprises — no mention has been made of grants, small-business loans, tax breaks, job and management training, and the like.
Nobody outside the inner circle knows for sure what's coming next, but it does seem that the inner circle has a distinct vision for the future. Teams of Cuban economists have visited China and Vietnam; they are learning from the successes and disasters of other Communist countries' transitions to a freer market, and are determined to get things right from the start. Or so it seems.
What the Castro brothers fear the most is losing control of the process, something entirely understandable. I don't think they fear a revolution as much as a takeover by U.S. interests. They would welcome, of course, a relaxation of the trade embargo which has been strangling the country for decades — it's not just Communism that's made the Cuban economy the worst in the Western Hemisphere. But the last thing they want is to be colonized by their neighbor to the north — that's what prompted Fidel's own revolution in the first place.
If any country can make a peaceful transition to a mixed socialism, Cuba can. As the refugees and their descendants in the United States have amply demonstrated, Cubans are hardly lazy — they don't want to "live without working," they want to live in a society where work pays off. Those on the island have been chomping at the bit for an opportunity to make their country over, and in their own way.
They've been under U.S. interdict for so long that they already have a vision of self-sufficiency; their urban agricultural programs, for example, have been studied by American agronomists as models of "sustainability." What the Castro brothers seem to be saying is, with us or against us, we're going to prosper by ourselves.
By all indications, change in Cuba will not be violent but velvet. There will be no overthrow here. Most people in Cuba, I think, have a genuine affection for Fidel — he's not a despised dictator but a beloved father and liberator. If only the Castros can open up the country to private initiative while preserving the best elements of socialism — medical care, education, equitable distribution of wealth — they could turn Cuba into the Sweden of the Caribbean.
It's interesting that after that momentous announcement there was hardly a peep out of the State Department, and as far as I know, President Obama hasn't mentioned it at all. Perhaps they were taken by surprise and are pondering their next move. The best thing the U.S. can do at this point — and not only for Cuba, by the way — is to tear down that wall of trade.
These are exciting times. Maybe I'll be able to visit the Hemingway house and take in a ball game after all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


September 2, 2010

Using religion to advance political goals is probably as old as religion itself. Its claims to absolute truth and certainty, and its highly emotional character, excite political extremism far better than politics itself. We all know that by now.
That is why it was no surprise that Glenn Beck, the incendiary talk-show host, took his Tea Party followers to the other dimension with his "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend.
"It has nothing to do with politics," he shouted to the crowd. "It has everything to do with God."
Sure. With himself and Sarah Palin on the stand, it was pretty easy to see through that one. And staging it in the very place and on the very date of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years earlier made the event positively creepy. On his radio show he said he hadn't known about the coincidence of dates beforehand; it was "divine providence" that guided his hand on the calendar.
It was providence too, presumably, that anointed him, of all people, as the restorer of Dr. King's dream, which, he said, "has been so corrupted." It is he and his followers that are "the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it."
Beck's attempt to co-opt the civil rights movement with charges of "reverse racism" — remember, he once called President Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred of white people" — is only topped by his attempt to co-opt Christianity.
After the rally, in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," he called President Obama "a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim." On his own show the previous week, he had stated that liberation theology is "all about victims and victimized, oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it."
"People," he concluded on the Fox News program, "aren't recognizing his version of Christianity."
But Jesus might.
Take the Gospel of Luke, for example. Often called "the Gospel of the Poor," it is all about oppressors and the oppressed.
Right from the beginning of this Gospel, you know what social class Jesus comes from. Unlike in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is born in a house and is visited by magi bearing precious gifts, in Luke he is born in a smelly stable, and first to do him honor is a group of humble shepherds — the underclass.
When he begins his public life, he announces his mission: "to bring glad tidings to the poor," "to let the oppressed go free." Time and again in his sermons and parables, he expands on that theme. In Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says bluntly: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours"; and in contrast: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." In one parable, Lazarus the poor man is received at the bosom of Abraham while the rich man, who would not give him so much as a scrap from his table, burns in hell. In another, the despised tax-collector's prayers justify him, while the lofty pharisee's do not.
Even before Jesus' birth, his mother had already summed up his life and work: God "has thrown down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly."
For Jesus in Luke, the new social order he proclaimed was not pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die; it was arriving right now: "The Kingdom of God is among you." Jesus was the first liberation theologian.
Obama is hardly a liberation theologian, even by Beck's simplistic definition. He may favor rescinding tax-cuts for the rich, but his emphasis is on the middle class, and his policies and pronouncements rarely address the plight of the poor. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were more "liberationist" than Obama is.
Beck preaches a theology of personal salvation without a social dimension — which is odd in itself, since he is a convert to Mormonism, as "collectivist" a religion as you'll find. And in implying that "individual salvation" is what most Christians believe, he ignores a denomination as large as the Catholic Church, with its highly-developed body of official teaching advocating his despised "social justice."
The Tea Party philosophy — Don't tread on me, tread on them — presumes a Horatio Alger libertarianism that, had Jesus embraced it, would have catapulted him from the barn to the boardroom in 33 short years. But no. Jesus was born poor and died poor, in solidarity with the poor.
Too bad Jesus wasn't a featured speaker at the "Restoring Honor" rally. You wonder what he'd have to say.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


August 26, 2010

The imam wasn't sinister. He was starry-eyed.
Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose idea it was to build a 15-story mosque and community complex at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, is no extremist. For decades he has worked to integrate American Muslims into the cultural mainstream. He has cultivated interfaith dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. He forcefully denounces violence. His views are so widely regarded and his integrity so trusted that both the Bush and Obama administrations have regularly sent him around the world to articulate the compatibility of American and Muslim law and values.
Imam Abdul Rauf conceived of Park51, as his project is called, as something New Yorkers would flock to — a place with something for everyone, an Islamic version of the Young Men's/Women's Christian Association (now called "The Y") or the Jewish Community Centers, with athletic facilities, an auditorium, meeting rooms, an art gallery, a fine restaurant, and a mosque in the mystic Sufi tradition where women and men worship together, religious garb is optional, and ecumenical activities are encouraged.
Indeed, he saw the choice of location as a statement — a symbol of solidarity between Americans who are Muslims and Americans who are not, a symbol of healing and of the renunciation of violence.
So sure was he of these aspirations that plans for the complex, according to the project's website,, include "a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all."
In their religious idealism, he and his supporters, including a host of prominent rabbis and Christian clergy, failed to read the signs of the times.
Almost at once, the proposal turned political, both micro and macro. The hearings of the Lower Manhattan Community Board in May and the Landmarks Preservation Commission early this month were marked by angry protests, and the overwhelmingly favorable votes were seen by many not as objective assessments of the project's civic worth but as compulsory political correctness at best or sympathy for the devil at worst.
On the macro side, Mayor Michael Bloomberg explicitly framed the issue in Constitutional terms. After the Landmark Commission vote, standing on Governor's Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background, he recalled New York's historic religious tolerance and called the decision "an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime."
Reactions were expected and understandable. One man asked, "What better place to teach tolerance than at the very area where hate tried to kill tolerance?" Another said, "The pain never goes away. When I look over there and see a mosque, it's going to hurt."
The actual problem is not about seeing a mosque but about seeing this one. There are several small mosques in the immediate vicinity, including one occupying a room at the proposed site; no one has challenged their right to exist. It is the enormity of this project that touches nerves. Rather than humbly living in the ghostly shadow of the Twin Towers, still ever-present to New Yorkers, Park51 is regarded by many not as a complement but as direct competition. Move it ten blocks away, they say, move it to Midtown — or, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, "build it in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. That is where 9/11 came from."
The most pragmatic argument came from Bill Doyle, representing a group of 9/11 families. Ground Zero, he said, "should be a serene site. Now you're going to see protests and demonstrations there all the time."
Last Sunday, his prediction was proved right. Protestors from both sides engaged in a shouting-match at 51 Park Place, held back from each other by the NYPD.
And it's not hard to think that much worse may come — not just raucous protest but a van-load of explosives sent by some extremist Christian group: terrorism from the opposite side.
Just as the Justice Department was forced to relocate the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of 9/11, from the Federal Courthouse in Lower Manhattan because of the massive security risk and drain on NYPD forces involved, so too should this project be relocated. The question is not about religious liberty; it is about the common good.
Given the climate of suspicion and fear of Islam growing unabated in this country, it is certainly possible that an Islamic center of this scope would be a terrorist target no matter where it was located. But to have Ground Zero and the mosque, two symbols of such potency, so near each other would create a magnetic field attracting more the worst than the best of human nature.
Daisy Khan, the wife of Abdul Rauf and spokesperson for the project, told the press on Sunday that the developers were open to building elsewhere. It's too bad, but it's the thing to do.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


August 19, 2010

Much of this country suffers from a collective post- traumatic stress disorder. Almost nine years after the shock of 9/11, we still have nightmares. We try to put it all behind us, to look to the future, to get on with our lives, but as with soldiers shaken by the constant surprise of the roadside bomb and the suicide bomber, any little thing can set us off, drive us crazy with fear.
What's set the country off now is mosques — the mosque going up on that parking lot down the street, that mosque proposed for the long-empty convent next to the Catholic church, and most pointedly this week, the mosque and Islamic cultural center slated to be built two blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood.
It's hard to get past the paranoia. Even the most responsible non-Muslims feel a twinge of it. It takes an act of the will to separate fact from fear, and the fact that Islam as a religion cannot be equated with terrorism can't keep people from fearing that it actually is, can't keep them from regarding all Muslims, even their neighbors, with secret suspicion.
Fanning the embers of suspicion are pundits and politicians who should know, and do know, what results their remarks will cause. The most vile example to date is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who declared on national television Sunday that "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. ... There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."
Islam = terrorism.
President Obama himself got caught in the thicket of the Ground Zero controversy by singling it out in his otherwise balanced speech at the White House Ramadan dinner last Friday. After reiterating the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, he said: "Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities — particulary in the City of New York."
Ouch! He could have confronted what appears to be a widening national problem by invoking the First Amendment against bigotry everywhere and anywhere — a problem which New York Times religion writer Laurie Goldstein brought to light days before his speech, in an article citing people's opposition to mosques all over the country, from Tennessee to Temecula. The issue, she wrote, has metastasized from "traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they may object to a church or synagogue," to "Islam itself," where their argument is "that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law."
The President could have alerted the nation as a whole to the cancerous threats to liberty growing within their own communities, but instead he chose to target the Ground Zero issue, one immeasurably more sensitive and complex: "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
The following day, he told a reporter: "I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
Despite the assessment of some individuals that he was "backpedaling" on the Ground Zero question, I think his clarification was right: Given a nation gripped by PTSD, is it wise to build an ostentatious Islamic cultural complex two blocks from the symbol of terror?
I'll deal with the Ground Zero specifics in next week's column.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


July 29, 2010

Just when one leak was plugged, another erupted. Just when the worst of the Gulf oil spill seemed at last to be over, that enormous spill of classified documents on the Afghan war hit the news. The Pentagon will use dispersants; the administration will do the "junk shot," throwing its own version of golf balls, old tires, and (of course) mud down the hole; the National Security Agency will lower an intelligence dome — but the gusher will go on. The bureaucrats will work frantically to develop technologies and strategies to prevent such incidents from happening again, but happen they will. It's not just possible, it's inevitable.
With 92,000 globules of documents spewed to the press by WikiLeaks, an off-shore cyber-rig drilling down a mile deep into database bedrock, it will take a long time to clean up. Its immediate consequences are as yet unknown: Will it end the American public's apathy towards the war? Will it change administration policy? Whatever the case, Afghanistan is on nobody's back burner now.
The amazing thing about this story is not so much the information itself — even Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai shrugged that there was nothing new there — but its acquisition. How vulnerable are secret files? If WikiLeaks can get at them, how about Al Qaeda, or Russia? Who needs to plant spies in New Jersey when a couple of crafty hackers in Moscow could do so much better?
The Big Leak came on the heels of "Top Secret America," a Washington Post investigative report by Dana Priest and William Arkin, describing the growth-like-topsy of the so-called "intelligence community" since the 9/11 attacks — 854,000 people now have U.S. top-secret security clearances. Any kid who's sworn friends to secrecy can tell you what happens: The more people that are in on a secret, the more chance someone will blab. There's little doubt that more and — can you imagine it? — even bigger leaks will bubble to the surface, not only about Afghanistan but about any and every issue any bureaucracy is trying to hide. Talk about transparency!
It will take a good while for the true usefulness of the present feat to be revealed. The three publications to which WikiLeaks unloaded its information — The New York Times, The Guardian in England, and Der Spiegel in Germany — used Google- like (Google-made?) search engines to cull through gaga-bytes of data and roughly categorize them into topics of interest — civilian casualties, drone-plane flights, and Pakistan-Taliban connections, among others — in order to build their stories. Beyond journalism, however, historians, military analysts, and political and social scientists will arrange the files for their own purposes. They'll lock the little pieces together and lay them out in clusters, like working a 92,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, until the picture is assembled. Such efforts will yield perspectives on this war — and war in general — that scholars of past conflicts could only dream about.
You'd like to hope that the WikiLeaks spill will lead to a major rethinking of American policy towards Afghanistan. It is true that there is little in the documents thus far presented by the press that most of us didn't already know or suspect: that Afghanistan is quicksand. But perhaps the assemblage of facts on this large a scale will shake the public up, as those primitively-procured Pentagon Papers did about the Vietnam war four decades ago.
Maybe this gusher will do the nation good.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


July 22, 2010

It's been a hell of a summer in New York City, with temperatures topping 90 degrees for days at a time and only the occasional thunderstorm to cool things off and moisten the earth. The Dog Days of August started in June this year, and all you want to do is lie under a tree and sleep. The usually lush lawns in the parks are brown and prickly, so even lying under a tree is not pleasant. Criminals too have grown lethargic, and street-beat reporters — from the New York Times, no less — with nothing much to write about but the heat, experiment with frying eggs on Manhattan sidewalks. (They haven't quite succeeded as yet, but it's only July.)
The upstate reservoirs that feed the city are down to 83 percent of capacity — normally they're almost full. Street-corner grandpas, never giving a thought to where water comes from, pull out their wrenches and open up fire hydrants so neighborhood kids can get knocked back in the gusher and passing cars can get a free wash.
Genesis Park Community Garden in the South Bronx is looking pretty wilted these days. We put upstate water to better use, giving the drooping plants a morning drink that allows them to survive if not prosper. Only the cucumbers and melons, which thrive in the heat, are producing well. Bean-plants are brown and scraggly, and the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are just holding on.
My colonies of honeybees are sweating it out, too, thousands lolling outside the hives to cool off, the bee-version of the apartment-house stoop. In this weather, even bees aren't busy.
Honeybee colonies are more like an organism than a society. Though individually cold-blooded, the bees as a group control conditions thermostatically, maintaining the temperature inside the hive at precisely 92 degrees year-round. In the cold of winter, they accomplish this by shivering their bodies, just as we do, to generate heat. In summer, they use fans, just as we do, fluttering their wings to draw in cooler air and circulate it throughout the hive — apian air-conditioning.
Other pollinators seem impervious to the heat. Bumblebees by the double dozen move about the cucumber and squash blossoms, and many other kinds of bees — carpenter bees, green metallic bees, mason bees — visit flowers that suit their size — mint, cilantro, hibiscus, butterfly bush.
This year the garden is participating in the Great Pollinator Project, a citizen-science experiment sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. In late spring, the project provided gardeners with several kinds of bee-attracting plants — sunflowers and cosmos for summer blooming, goldenrods and asters for the fall. Participants are asked to sit in front of the blooms and count the bees that visit them — five bees or half an hour, whichever comes first. They then enter the results in an on-line database, pinpointing their location using GoogleEarth, noting the date and time of the observation, the type of flower, and the kind of bee. At season's end, the data will be consolidated to map the abundance and variety of bees throughout New York City.
We've seldom had to wait the half-hour. Usually, at any time of day, the sunflowers are laden with bees, sometimes two or three per bloom, jostling for space.
All this in the heart of the South Bronx.
Kevin Matteson, the Fordham University entomologist coordinating the effort, has been researching urban pollinators for almost a decade. With their rich vegetation and pollinator- friendly habitat, he told me, "community gardens are incredibly important to maintaining bee and butterfly diversity, especially in heavily developed neighborhoods of New York City."
Sitting before a sunflower in the evening shade, sipping a gin and tonic, tallying up the bees — that's turned out to be one of the better ways for a wilting gardener to beat the heat.


July 15, 2010

One of the many dashed hopes contrasting the Obama campaign with the Obama administration has been that of a fresh and open approach by the United States government toward Cuba.
Two months after his inauguration, President Obama rescinded the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on sending dollars to their relatives there, and immediately got this response from Cuban President Raul Castro: "We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."
Such a disarmingly frank overture yielded exactly nothing. Things have remained just the way they've been for half a century, with Cuba strangling from an economic embargo that has only served to stiffen its ideological stance: a little Cold War going on long after the big Cold War had ended.
Last week, the Cuban government announced that 52 of its 167 political prisoners would be released, and on Tuesday the first six of them were reunited with their families and left for exile in Spain.
It was not the United States, stuck in its unbending demand for unilateral social and political change, that arranged the releases but the diplomatic efforts of Spain and, most significantly, of the Roman Catholic Church.
Last month, the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, paid an official visit to Cuba to celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations. While there, he and the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, along with Spain's foreign minister Miguel Moratinos, met with Cuban President Raul Castro to negotiate a prisoner release.
The effort was successful, partly as a gesture to the Church, which since Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 has experienced less repression and growing influence. Cardinal Ortega has not softened his criticism of the totalitarian state nor his calls for democratization and social justice, and yet he has simultaneously managed to convince the government to relax its restrictions on religious activities. It is entirely possible that Raul, unlike his brother Fidel, sees the Church not as an enemy but as a pragmatic ally, an institution whose diplomats can go where Cuba's own cannot, to improve relations with other governments including the U.S., and whose influence on the citizenry can facilitate gradual internal change by promoting stability and restraining the advocates of radical overthrow.
Ortega pulls no punches on the other side either, sharply criticizing the Obama administration's apparent abandonment of its promise of dialogue. In a recent interview in the Archdiocese of Havana's magazine, Palabra Nueva, he noted that on the campaign trail Obama had "indicated he would change the style and would seek to talk directly with Cuba. After taking office, however, the new U.S. president has repeated the old model of previous governments."
On both the macro and the micro levels, we see playing out the unique political position of the Catholic Church, at once a religious body and a secular state, a fusion formed over 1500 years ago to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Long a world power, in modern times the Vatican lost its armies and almost all of its land, but it continued to play a significant role in international affairs, both through a diplomatic corps in formal parity with other states' and through its social teachings born of that fusion, more pragmatically philosophical than religious. The instrumentality of John Paul II in bringing down the Soviet bloc is perhaps its most recent and potent example.
Unfortunately, much of the Church's political power has been undercut by the internal corruption of the sex-abuse scandals. In contrast to Cuba's, American Catholic bishops — once greatly respected and regularly called upon to testify before Congress on social issues — have now been rendered impotent, partly because of the scandals and partly because of an obsession with abortion that has put them at odds with otherwise valuable political allies and even with some of their own institutions, as the opposition of Catholic hospitals and women's religious orders to the bishops during the recent health-care debate has shown. With the exception of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and several of his colleagues on immigration reform, the American hierarchy's voice for justice is now largely mute.
That's why it was almost rehabilitative to hear of the political successes of the Church in Cuba. In some areas of the world at least, the Church as state can still play hardball.


July 1, 2010

It was every reporter's dream: to write a small article that brings down a big guy. Not only that, but an easy article to boot: Do a little background research, summarize others' previous reportage and publicly available documents, interview your subject, his wife, and his aides, have a few beers with them to glean some loose-lipped quotes (expletives undeleted), and tie it all together in 8,000 very readable words. No need to invoke the Freedom of Information Act, no need to face jail for refusing to name names, no Deep Throat. Can't beat it.
The reporter himself, Michael Hastings, probably had no idea that his piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone magazine last week, would have the effect it did: the summary dismissal of the architect of allied military policy in Afghanistan. The Big Guy was gone before the hard copies hit the newsstands.
If you haven't read Hastings' story, read it. You'll see that there's virtually nothing in there that you didn't already know or suspect: that there is widespread disagreement within the administration and the military over how to conduct the operation in Afghanistan; that there is open contention between the military and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones; that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a corrupt and capricious ally; that many troops bitterly complain that McChrystal's policy of avoiding civilian casualties has left them vulnerable to Taliban attacks; that last spring's incursion into Marja, the test-case for the McChrystal counterinsurgency plan — "clear, build, hold, transfer" — has become, in the General's own words, a "bleeding ulcer."
It's all common knowledge. How could a story like this have had a result like that?
The answer lies not in the collection of facts but in Hastings' engaging profile of McChrystal that, almost entirely by inference, makes the general look big and the president look small.
Ostensibly, Obama fired McChrystal to maintain a united front in the conduct of the war. "I believe," Obama stated when he accepted the general's resignation, "that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. ... I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division."
I'm not quite sure what's the difference between debate and division, but Hastings' article succinctly showed that the "team" is about as dysfunctional as the French World Cup soccer squad. Indeed, the coach and his star player seem like the only ones sharing the same page; after all, the counterinsurgency strategy was McChrystal's idea, and Obama gave him almost everything and everybody he asked for to attempt it. Obama has long tried to present himself as the picture of confidence, in control of things Afghan, but the fact is that there are too many variables out there for anyone to be in control.
What really stuck in Obama's craw was that one little line in the article, where McChrystal (according to unnamed sources) "thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated' by the roomful of military brass" in his first meeting with them after the inauguration.
That's it? Sure, across the article the general and those unnamed sources shot their mouths off, but the words come across as griping, what all soldiers do, not as insubordination, conduct that in Obama's words "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."
A lot has been made about Obama's "Truman moment," but analogies with the dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur are thin. MacArthur repeatedly upbraided Truman in the press for supposed faint-heartedness and "appeasement" in not escalating the Korean War into mainland China, but far beyond personal insults, he committed a truly undermining act of insubordination in going over the president's head with his own communiqué to China, threatening an invasion. By contrast, Obama himself on Dismissal Day acknowledged that "Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully." Just as McChrystal, to his credit, is no MacArthur, so Obama is no Truman.
What McChrystal's firing really demonstrates is just how deeply disarrayed the situation in Afghanistan is. McChrystal was the scapegoat, symbolically bearing the whole sorry mess into the wilderness. But the illusion of unity evaporated into the summer air of the Rose Garden as soon as the words left the president's lips.
About the only ones to benefit are Michael Hastings and Rolling Stone. Despite the dire predictions about the death of journalism, the press, or whatever we should call it nowadays, can still bring down the big guys.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


June 17, 2010

For just about forever, the charitable act of feeding the hungry meant filling stomachs with leftovers. In the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible, to use an ancient example, the wealthy landowner Boaz lets his impoverished relative Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth glean whatever grains of barley the harvesters had left behind. (He later marries Ruth.) Until quite recently, most food-assistance programs gave out canned and dry foods gleaned from Thanksgiving drives and generic processors, and foot-long blocks of tasteless government-surplus cheese.
That's why I was astounded to discover what the St. Augustine Food Pantry here in the South Bronx has been putting in their grocery bags these days: fresh apples and carrots, frozen vegetables and blueberries, whole-wheat pasta, elegant grinders of McCormick garlic sea-salt, bottles of fruit juice, chocolate- chip cookies, boxes of Triscuits, family-sized wedges of Borden cheddar and mozzarella chesses — things everybody loves to eat and drink. Last week's selection even included several cases of Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale with Pomegranate Juice, concocted by Asian-food guru Bruce Cost.
Sister Dorothy Hall, O.P., the food pantry director, recently treated me to a glass.
"Wow," I said as the bits of ginger hit my palate, "this is the best carbonated drink I think I've ever had. Where did it come from?"
"The Food Bank," she told me. "I can't believe the quality and variety of the food we get from them. It's a pleasure to give it out."
Every Monday, Sister Dorothy's pantry in the basement of St. Augustine Catholic Church distributes bags containing food enough for nine well-balanced meals to around 500 people. Her primary source is the Food Bank For New York City, which started out in 1983 as Food For Survival, a clearinghouse to solicit and store food donations and government allocations and channel them to participating food pantries and soup kitchens. This in itself was a major step forward in addressing the growing problem of hunger in the city, relieving the small neighborhood agencies of the anxiety of finding food and of dealing with the complexities of the food bureaucracy. Throughout the years, it has broadened its scope to include nutrition education, cooking classes, school programs, and assistance in applying for federal food stamps and earned-income tax credits.
It's not just about survival anymore; it's about bringing people into the mainstream. "Food Bank" is a more accurate name.
"The old idea of feeding the hungry was that the desperate will take anything," says Carol Schneider, the Food Bank's senior media relations manager. "It's the opposite now. All people have equal dignity, and our goal is to provide the most nutritious and tasty food available and to get people out of the band-aid mode so they can shop for their own food, make healthy choices, and feel good about themselves."
This attitude is no better seen than in the Food Bank's Food Sourcing Division and its director, David Grossnickle. Just a year into the job, Grossnickle has transformed the operation, tirelessly spreading the word to merchants large and small.
"It's all about communication," he says. "When I call up a prospective donor, they usually come to the phone with this mind- set that, oh, you're the group that gives to homeless people. When I explain that there are all kinds of people that need food assistance — families, people that have jobs and a future, young and old, maybe even some of their neighbors — they end up saying, ‘I had no idea.' Usually I can close the deal."
About five percent of the Bank's procurements are wholesale purchases of staple foods that food-assistance programs rely on every week — canned vegetables and fruits, tuna, ground beef, chicken, condiments. In addition, many of the name-brand items like the Triscuits come through Feeding America (formerly called America's Second Harvest; see Ruth, above), a national clearinghouse that solicits and distributes large-scale donations from the big food manufacturers.
The rest of the food comes from local donations.
"Most distributors have excess food at one time or another," says Grossnickle, "and that's when we can help. We make it as easy as possible. I tell them, ‘When you've got a space problem, remember we're just a phone call away.'"
Sometimes Grossnickle lands some very interesting stuff, like Bruce Cost's ginger ale and the load of Greek cookies and biscuits he recently secured from an importer. "These kinds of foods are great because they give people the chance to try something they've never tried before."
Healthy eating is a priority. "We're always looking for foods that are nutritionally dense," he says. "We try to stay away from sugary donations. If a distributor offers us soda, I usually tell them, ‘Well, soda isn't really great — what else do you carry?' That's where a lot of our juices come from."
Accessing fresh foods is another part of Grossnickle's mission. Of the 70 million pounds of food distributed yearly by the Food Bank to over a thousand groups serving 1.3 million people, 13 million pounds is fresh produce. With their warehouse right in the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, the nation's largest wholesale produce distribution center, the Food Bank gets first pick of excess perishables and screens it for quality before sending it out to the programs. The Bank also partners with food banks in upstate New York for a wide selection of seasonal produce from local farmers.
For the Food Bank, it's still about leftovers, but leftovers of a different kind, gleaned from the top, enhancing not only health but human well-being.
Sister Dorothy, got any more of that ginger ale?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


June 10, 2010

At Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, the summer vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, collards, beans, cucumbers, melons — are growing lustily in the hot weather, shading the early-spring plantings of lettuces, spinach, radishes, and cilantro, which the gardeners are now harvesting. The cool-weather crops of peas, broccoli, and carrots will be ready soon.
At this time of year, the garden is a busy place. Kids off the street and from local youth groups come by to dig for earthworms, shriek at centipedes, pull weeds, shovel compost, plant seeds, water, and wonder at the miracle of life.
Recently, after they'd put in a morning of solid work, I asked the kids if they'd like some lemonade. Before they had a chance to reply, their youth-group leader interjected, "Or I could take you to McDonald's."
Guess which option they chose.
McDonald's! I cringed. After all that hands-on education in urban farming, they still salivate for greasy McNuggets, salty fries, and sugary sodas.
My mind went a step further: But what about my instant lemonade, that sweetened water with a little flavoring? Right next to the pitcher in the fridge was a big jug of apple juice — why didn't I think of offering them that?
Am I becoming a food alarmist? Will I supplement reading the obituaries in the morning paper with reading the Nutrition Facts on the cereal boxes? Will seeing a kid with a Burger King bag cause the same horrified reaction as seeing a kid with a pack of Marlboros?
I hope not — I guiltlessly take in a Whopper now and then — but it's hard to resist dietary paranoia. Every few months some study linking some food to some disease hits the news and the nerves, only to disappear or be discredited. As one friend, a native of the Gambia, West Africa, once told me: "Back home, we eat to live. Here in America, we eat to die."
The latest object of national obsession is childhood obesity, an issue now made prominent by First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against it.
This may not be paranoia. Something is actually following us.
We all know the statistics, and it's not just about childhood: Over the last 30 years, the percentage of clinically overweight adults in the U.S. rose from 45% to 68%, and those classified as obese jumped from 13% to 34%. For children and adolescents, the overall numbers have increased from around 7% overweight/obese to 30%. The latest studies in New York City indicate that 43% of elementary school children are overweight.
We all know the results of obesity: diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers.
And we all know the reasons, too: processed foods, sugary drinks, lack of exercise.
Not one of the half-dozen children in the garden that day was overweight — they, among their friends and classmates, probably showed up there because they enjoy the outdoors and physical activity; they may even like vegetables. It may also be that to them and to their parents, a trip to McD's is a rare treat, not a daily diet.
But what about the rest?
Twenty years ago, a nearby pastor celebrated the arrival of the first McDonald's in this neighborhood, right up the street from his church; to him it was a sign that the South Bronx was bouncing back. Now there are three of them, and you'll pass plenty of other fast-food outlets and carry-out delis in between.
You deserve a break today. In fact, you deserve a break this very minute.
At first glance it's crazily incongruous that obesity rates are the highest among the poor. More than one cynical visitor to this area has remarked, "If hunger is such a problem around here, why are so many people fat?"
The answer to this paradox is the paradox of the food- delivery system. A recent segment of the PBS NewsHour profiled the problem of obesity in the town of Lambert, Miss., where farming is an industry, the crops are trucked away, and all the system gives them back to eat comes from the convenience store, the pizza place, and the ubiquitous McDonald's — no good supermarkets for 20 miles. In the midst of plenty, Lambert is what the experts are now calling a "food desert." People have lost their ancestors' skills at raising their own food in their back yards, as well as their ambition for it; stories of picking beans, shucking peas, gathering eggs, and baking blackberry pies for the family dinner are just stories now. Locked in the grip of the system, it's hard to think and act beyond it.
In many respects, the South Bronx is better off than Lambert in terms of food delivery. Supermarkets with a decent if limited selection of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are within walking distance for most. But the ready availability of the quick-fix — the sweet, the salty, the packaged, the processed — is irresistible. Given the choice, people will bypass the oven for the microwave, the preparation for the prepared, the cookbook for the can. That's especially the case among the poor, for whom instant gratification of open-and-eat is one of their few consolations.
Conquering obesity means conquering the industrial food- delivery system and putting a local one in its place. The gardeners at Genesis Park are pointing the way.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


May 20, 2010

It would be funny if it wasn't so serious. It would be fiction if it wasn't a fact.
On March 31, President Obama announced a plan to open areas off the East Coast and new portions of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to oil exploration. Exactly three weeks later, the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing eleven workers and sending a gusher now estimated at over 200,000 gallons of crude per day — and possibly much more — into the sea. The slick continues to grow, threatening coastal wildlife, Louisiana fisheries still recovering from the convulsions of Hurricane Katrina, and the tourist trade along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. It was as if God herself had anted up at the energy- policy table and was playing some cards of her own.
The plume issuing from the ruptured well a mile deep in the Gulf was, as God often has it, not only a physical reality but a moral metaphor, and the human responses to both rival some of the best stories in religious literature, the sulphurous fire over Sodom and Lot's wife entombed in salt coming readily to mind.
The attempts at physical damage control have been pure Rube Goldberg. First came the "dispersants" — detergents used to break down the oil into droplets — which are turning large sections of the Gulf into a giant washing machine, sending the oil below the surface and possibly endangering layers of sea-life on the way down. Then came a giant concrete dome lowered over the blow-hole on the sea bottom, and when that failed, a smaller "top-hat" which has yet to be deployed. Then underwater robots attached a tube to siphon some of the escaping oil up to a drill-ship above. And just when you thought it couldn't get any crazier, BP delighted news-media illustrators and commentators with the "junk shot," a proposed procedure apparently often used successfully on land, to funnel a collection of debris including golf balls, rope, and old tires and topped off with mud, into the hole to stop it up, much like food scraps stop up your sink. My plumber stands amazed.
The metaphorical plume is widening too. Through its spokesman, the aptly-named Kent Wells, BP assured the public that everything possible was being done and those businesses hurt by the spill would be compensated, all the while shifting the blame for the event to the equipment maker and the contractors. (The far-off Marshall Islands, under which the rig is registered, have yet to be blamed.) You wonder who the insurers are; might one of them be AIG? The world economy could sink again, not only by Greece but by grease.
It gets better. A key player in the debacle is the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department responsible both for issuing permits for offshore drilling and for enforcing environmental laws. This once-lighthearted group has long been known for what Obama has called its "cozy relationship" with the oil and gas industries, a relationship both figurative and literal. During the previous administration, the MMS regularly drew up leases without demanding the required safety and environmental-impact studies — the BP rig was one of them. Equally regularly, members of its staff not only took countless gifts from industry personnel but took drugs and had sex with them too, giving new meaning to the term "interior department." Though the Obama administration early on vowed to clean up yet another deadly spill from the Bush years, the permits kept coming, even if the orgies did not; in fact, five of them were issued just a couple weeks ago.
BP's Wells, among other industry advocates, has evoked the memory of man-made disasters from the Titanic to the Exxon Valdez to the space shuttle Challenger to remind us that clouds have silver linings; they've led to improved technology and increased safety. But in each of these cases, as in the present one, it was primarily negligence in construction and/or operation that doomed them.
The administration has now put a hold on new permits, pending an investigation by an independent panel. And some drill- baby up in Alaska, looking back, may end up as a pillar of salt.

Monday, May 10, 2010


May 6, 2010

After a couple years of consciousness-raising and political agitation by urban-agriculture groups, the New York City Department of Health has removed the honeybee from its index of forbidden creatures. Oh, freedom! No longer would beekeepers in the boroughs have to live furtively, fearing betrayal by neighborhood informants, their locations disclosed, their hives confiscated, their checkbooks garnished, their pacific hobby denied them by The Regime.
The prohibition against keeping honeybees in New York was a recent development. In 1999, presumably as one of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's Quality of Life initiatives, bees were added to the City Health Code's list of "wild animals" that are "naturally inclined to do harm and capable of inflicting harm upon human beings." The list, minutely detailed, includes whales, lions, Komodo dragons, Tasmanian devils, scorpions, and what was reputed to be Rudy's particular peeve-pet, ferrets.
I started keeping bees that same year, in a community garden on public property. I'd not heard of the official ban, and neither apparently had the officials. Horticulturists from the Parks Department periodically visited the garden and commended me for bringing pollinators to the blighted South Bronx. School groups, agricultural academics, and reporters from as far away as Germany and Australia came to watch the bees at work and sample their delightful honeys culled from the flora of the nearby parks and the banks of the Bronx River. In well-known community gardens where bees had been kept for decades, parks commissioners and even mayors took pride in posing for photos in front of beehives before whooping it up at the summer solstice festivities. Even people who kept bees on their own property were either unaware of or undaunted by the code; one fellow maintained hives at over a dozen sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn, appeared regularly on the local TV news, and sold his "Rooftop Honey" at upscale farmers markets, eight ounces for ten bucks. Occasionally, alerted by some disgruntled or paranoid neighbor, the city would shut down and fine a private beekeeper, but such instances were rare; there was no K.G.Bee surveiling the streets, hunting for hives.
Then someone unearthed the "bee law." It was right there in black and white, and it made urban-agriculture groups nervous. Their hope was to take beekeeping from a quirky novelty to a widespread practice, with bees as ubiquitous as broccoli in back yards and community gardens. But they could not move confidently toward their goal as long as that one word, "bee," was on the books.
Thus began the campaign to legalize beekeeping in New York City, a masterstroke of public relations working synergistically with the anxiety-provoking news of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that was more than decimating the honeybee population in rural areas. While petitioning the City Council and the Department of Health for hearings, beekeeping advocates staged photogenic rallies and parties, many of whose participants came dressed up as queen bees, sunflowers, and assorted vegetables. They also took to the talk shows, portraying honeybees as gentle, "domesticated" creatures and beekeepers as admirable outlaws, Clint Eastwoods in bee-veils, green subversives who brought pollination to plants and local honey to the allergy-afflicted despite the threat of interdict.
It worked. In March, the Department of Health excepted "non- aggressive honey bees" from the list of wild animals while requiring beekeepers to register their hives with the department and keep them in good order. Beekeepers could henceforth be fined for creating a substantiated nuisance, but no longer for simply harboring the insects.
Such a balanced ruling, without licensing, inspections, or other red tape, was a relief to veteran beekeepers, who feared not fines but fees and entanglement in the web of bureaucracy, to use an arachnid analogy.
The health-code change released a flood of pent-up desire to install honeybee colonies. The NYC Beekeeping Meetup Group, the largest of several local associations, has more than 700 members and this season sold bees and equipment to over a hundred novices. It is impossible to gauge how many others are setting up hives on their own.
The rush to beekeeping may have some negative consequences. With many more bees, there will inevitably be many more swarms — a natural collective form of reproduction where colonies divide in two and one of them takes off and temporarily gathers on a tree branch or fence while searching for a new home. Swarms are not dangerous, but uninformed citizens may think they are. There will also inevitably be more accidents and more incidents of stings.
The Meetup Group offers an intensive course on proper beekeeping practice and has a hot-line where experienced beekeepers talk novices through their uncertainties. Those who take their new hobby seriously will in time grow skilled in it, but what of those who lose interest and neglect their hives?
Keeping bees is not like keeping chickens, and in that respect, the old code had got it right: Honeybees are in fact not domesticated; they remain wild venomous insects, and if threatened are quite capable of inflicting harm upon human beings. They can be successfully managed, but they can never be completely controlled.
Cities like San Francisco and Seattle actively encourage beekeeping, and you never hear of trouble; perhaps the citizenry has learned to take swarms and stings in stride.
So send in the bees. There ought to be bees.
Don't bother — they're here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


April 22, 2010

Last week a friend forwarded me an e-mail forwarded to him from another friend to whom it had been forwarded. “Jewish Sam Miller on Catholics” was the title, and under it, “Excerpt from an article written by non-Catholic Sam Miller, a prominent Cleveland Jewish businessman.”
“Why would newspapers carry on a vendetta against one of the most important institutions that we have today in the United States, namely the Catholic Church?” the excerpt began, followed by a list of statistics on how many children Catholic schools educate, how many people Catholic hospitals serve, and how much money Catholic organizations save the American taxpayer.
“But the press is vindictive and trying to totally denigrate in every way the Catholic Church in this country,” the piece continued, followed by more claimed statistics, among them that “12% of the 300 Protestant clergy surveyed admitted to sexual intercourse with a parishioner; 38% acknowledged other inappropriate sexual contact in a study by the United Methodist Church. Meanwhile, 1.7% of the Catholic clergy has been found guilty of pedophilia. 10% of the Protestant ministers have been found guilty of pedophilia. This is not a Catholic Problem.”
Finally: “The agony that Catholics have felt and suffered is not necessarily the fault of the Church.... Walk with your shoulders high and your head higher. Be a proud member of the most important non-governmental agency in the United States.”
General skepticism of the truth of forwarded e-mails is always advisable, and some fact-checking before re-forwarding them or writing about them is definitely recommended. In this case, an internet search for “Sam Miller Cleveland” turned up several references to Miller, a controversial 88-year-old board member of Forest City Enterprises, the megalith real-estate development company based in Cleveland, and promoter of Jewish and Catholic causes. It also turned up dozens of Catholic-oriented sites and blogs quoting from and commenting on Miller’s alleged words taken, some of them stated, from a 2008 speech to the City Club of Cleveland. What appears to be the full text, a six-page PDF file, is posted on the Knights of Malta website,
Though this document presents some positive proposals for interfaith cooperation in confronting sexual abuse, much of it is an unrestrained rant against the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers, and their “kangaroo journalists ..., Catholics or ex-Catholics who have been denied something they wanted from the Church and are on a mission of vengeance.” Anybody about to push the FW button should think twice, especially about the accuracy of those numbers on sexual abuse among Protestants.
On a related theme from a mainline source, the April 15 issue of the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter, columnist Melissa Musick Nussbaum seeks to redirect the press to more pressing problems. After supplying her own set of statistics on media attention to sexual-abuse cases (those by the Hare Krishna sect and at an Episcopalian-run school in South Carolina have been largely ignored, as has the dramatic drop in abuse claims against priests over the last two decades), she suggests that reporters delve into more recent and even more shocking ones, such as the findings of a U.S. Justice Department investigation issued in January that “an estimated 10.3 percent of youth in state and large non-state [juvenile] facilities report experiencing one or more incidents of sexual abuse involving facility staff annually.”
“The fire is out in one house but still raging in the house down the block,” she writes; it’s “the present emergency” that should be the focus of the news.
Is the press out to get the Catholic Church? Despite these facts and factoids, I don’t think that’s the specific goal. There has not been widespread bias against Catholics, either in the media or in American culture at large, since John Kennedy dispelled it by example 50 years ago. Instead, what reporters are going after today is what reporters are always going after, the man-bites-dog story. Nussbaum is right: “Hare Krishnas and Episcopalians don’t summon the same rich associations as Roman Catholic clergy.” Priests are unique because of their promise of celibacy and because of the mysterious spiritual powers of their office, both enduringly fascinating to the public at large. The ethical bar for Catholic priests is thus much higher than for officials in other institutions, religious or secular, and failing to jump it makes much better news.
On the political level, there are the tantalizing prospects of the cover-up, irresistible to the investigative reporter. Watergate or Toyota, Pentagon or pope, it’s pretty much the same: the thrill of the hunt, and the singular pleasure of bringing down the high and mighty.
Miller in his alleged speech makes an arguable point in contrasting the many good works of the institutional Church with the relatively few numbers of predatory priests. But writing in the April 18 edition of Miller’s despised New York Times, the intrepid investigative columnist Nicholas Kristof, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his first-hand accounts of the Darfur genocide, makes perhaps a more arguable point in contrasting the Catholicism of Rome to the Catholicism of the trenches, “the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy ... obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice” versus “the Church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children.”
Negligence of the hierarchical Church, bashed; praise for the Church of the people, unabashed. That’s a fairly fair assessment.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


April 15, 2010

In 1902, Alfred Loisy, a French priest and biblical scholar, wrote with evident disillusionment: "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, and what arrived was the Church."
What would/does Jesus think of what became of his utopian religious vision over the centuries?
To Jesus, the Kingdom of God would turn all conventional kingdoms on their heads. His Kingdom would belong to the poor and the meek. It would have no armies. Its leaders would be servants, getting down on their knees to wash their followers' grimy feet. There would be no priestly class; every believer would have unmediated access to God through Jesus. Complicated religious rituals would be replaced by the simple sharing of bread and wine in memory of him. Mountains of rules and regulations would be supplanted by one great law of love.
It was, I guess, a bit much to ask, even from God himself.
Within a hundred years of Jesus' death, the small communities of believers began taking on the characteristics of "organized religion." By the time the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, Christianity was so organized it took over the reins of government as well.
What had arrived was the Church, complete with lands and armies and a rigid hierarchical structure and a mediating priesthood and elaborate rituals — in so many ways the very things Jesus found as obstacles, not vehicles, to God.
Power corrupts, and Church history is replete with the misdeeds of popes, bishops, abbots, and priests. All seven of the Deadly Sins — pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth — were committed with abandon by wanton ecclesiastical potentates. Yet to the pure of heart, the Church in its essence was still the living Body of Christ on earth, a precious treasure held in vessels of clay. It was, to extend Luther's phrase beyond the individual, simul justa et peccator, saved and sinner at once. People like Francis of Assisi in the 13th century looked to the almost-forgotten Jesus of the Gospels and embraced his example of poverty, simplicity, and humble service while remaining faithful to a hierarchy they saw as authentic dispensers of grace, despite disgrace. In so doing, they shamed a corrupt institution into righting itself again and again: Ecclesia semper reformanda.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, in reaction to egregious abuses of power emanating from Rome, rejected the institution itself, asserting that salvation comes not through priest and sacrament but sola fide, by personal faith alone. The Protestant Reformation was not so much a reformation as a revolution, a definitive break from a religious structure that had remained virtually intact for over a millennium. Protestant denominations simplified both governance and worship, modeling their communities on the ones closest to Jesus' own time, as described in the New Testament.
Yet despite these massive defections, the Roman Catholic Church survived. The question at hand is whether it will survive the priest-pedophile scandal of today.
There are reasons to think it will not, at least in its present form.
From the cultural standpoint alone, there are increasing numbers of people in the Western world, especially among the young, who believe in and pray to God but have little use for religious doctrine and practice. A recent Pew poll found that only 18% of Americans under age 30 who identify themselves as affiliated with a particular faith regularly attend its services; for them, religion is primarily personal. Given those statistics, sustaining any mainline church will become hard to do, scandal or no scandal.
Specific to practicing Catholics, there are many whose notions about religious authority have been demythologized by the scandals. In times past, Catholics overwhelmingly believed that priest, bishop, and pope were by their ordination channels of grace regardless of their sins. Today they subject their clergy to what Marxists of beloved memory called the "hermeneutic of suspicion," critically judging them by their merits, not their office. Whereas Catholics used to respect their priests because they were priests, they now give priests respect only if they've earned it.
The attitude of unwavering obedience by Catholics to religious authority is still prevalent in developing countries, which is why hierarchies there have so far been able to keep the lid on their own scandals. But once the hermeneutic of suspicion begins to take hold, those lids too will blow, just as surely as in the United States and Europe.
What may come of all this is a Catholic Church so weakened by distrust that it will have to reorganize itself on a less hierarchical, more egalitarian model: another Reformation, but this time from within.
Among the weeds and briars of the institutional Church, seeds of the Kingdom of God may be, as Jesus once put it, growing secretly.

Friday, April 9, 2010


April 1, 2010

It's Holy Week, the most solemn time in the Christian Church's liturgical year. Those who tune in the TV to watch Pope Benedict XVI officiating at those magnificent ceremonies at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome may have some other stray thoughts running in the back of their heads: What did he know? When did he know it? What did he do about it?
These ancient rites commemorating the passion and resurrection of Jesus are in their essence the same as those enacted in Rome for over 1500 years, performed by popes as noble and saintly as Gregory the Great and John XXIII and as smarmy and sinful as the Borgias and Medicis. According to the doctrine of ex opere operato, long ago established to deal with lapsed priests after the Roman persecutions, the moral condition of the presider has no bearing on the efficacy of the act. The validity of a sacrament comes from "the work worked," not from the worthiness of the one working it.
Yet it is the question of worthiness that may bother us as we watch. Benedict — theologian, intellectual, champion of orthodoxy — can hardly be compared with the Medicis, but does he share the guilt of denial in the sexual-abuse scandals that have infected the Catholic Church in the U.S., Europe, and possibly beyond?
The cock crows; is it crowing for him?
The particular scandal that may undermine his papacy goes back to the 1980's, when he was Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich. Hard on to Holy Week, the New York Times revealed memos and minutes of meetings showing that Ratzinger was aware of if not instrumental in the reinstatement of a pedophile priest in his diocese who continued his abuses and was eventually convicted under civil law. The Times also broke a disturbing story of the abuse of dozens of boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee in the 1970's and the inaction by the Vatican office headed by Ratzinger when it was finally brought there by the Milwaukee bishop years after.
The dynamic in these two cases is identical to almost every other one everywhere: Same time-period — late 1960's through mid- 1980's; and same response — the bishop is apparently aware but passive, leaving the disposition of pedophile priests to ecclesiastical bureaucrats who put them into therapy and then reassign them. The pattern was so uniform and so worldwide, despite there being at the time no body of Church law or regulation to refer to, that one can only conclude that it was the product of an insular institutional culture operating out of ignorance, compassion, and fear: ignorance of the intractable nature of pedophilia and the belief that it was a moral rather than a pathological problem, a sin to be absolved and healed by confession and its grace; compassion for a fellow priest and the understandable desire to shield the faithful from scandal; and fear of intrusion by secular authorities into what was seen as an internal matter.
Things are different now. As with the Church's stance on slavery, which throughout much of its history was commonly accepted as a given but is now recognized as appallingly evil, moral acuity develops over time. Pedophile priests were treated with a now-unbelievable institutional blindness to the agony of the victims, de facto aided by a laity fiercely loyal to the institution and unwilling to think the unthinkable, that their pastors could ever do such despicable things.
As with slavery, the unmasking of clergy sexual abuse has led to shamed apologies and reparations for past evils and stringent policies to avoid future ones. To their credit, both the present pope and national conferences of bishops have done admirable work towards these ends. But there remain elements of coverup, reluctance to come completely clean, from certain bishops' stonewalling the release of documents to the pope's own silence about his involvement in the Munich case. It's this lack of "transparency," what writer David Gibson has called "circling the wagons," that is fueling the present furor.
We are not used to popes speaking personally. We see them as icons, not individuals, successors of St. Peter, by whose office the work is worked.
But Peter himself, afraid for his life after his master's arrest, three times denied knowing Jesus. Realizing his betrayal, the Gospels recount, "he went out and wept bitterly." Full disclosure.
No matter how great or how small the culpability, the icon of Peter should do nothing less.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


March 25, 2010

Last Sunday's rush to passage of the health-care reform bill by the House of Representatives was an example of high drama you never thought happened in a place better known for droning diatribes made to an empty chamber. It was a parliamentary flurry of motions and amendments and scrupulously-timed speechlets and nail-biting votes. For those watching it on TV, the experience was positively exhilarating, a seldom-seen live civics lesson on how bills become laws, how your do-nothing Congress actually does something. It may have changed the minds of not a few young voters about the value of entering public service.
Another civics lesson, far beyond the scope of textbooks, was the way in which Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama marshaled their recalcitrant troops for the necessary 216 votes, an outcome quite uncertain just hours before.
To the surprise of almost everybody, they hauled in the two big fighting fish of totally different ideological species, single-payer proponent Dennis Kucinich and abortion opponent Bart Stupak, along with their respective schools.
Exactly how they did it may never be fully known. No smarmy sweeteners like those bestowed on certain Senators are yet evident; it appears to have been the result of fervent appeal to party loyalty, the promise that their respective objections would not go unheeded, and Obama's Voltairian mantra, "We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Whatever the tactics, it was a masterful display of the power of persuasion, Dale Carnegie on steroids.
Of all the high drama, swaying Stupak and his anti-abortion Democratic colleagues was certainly the highest. Long before Saturday's vote, this new little caucus, whose convictions had been excluded from the Democratic tent and platform for decades, became the makers or breakers of health-care legislation. They were no naïve fools, either, showing serpentine political acumen first in allying themselves with the Republican minority to block passage of last November's House bill unless highly restrictive language on abortion funding were included, and then in pulling the rug out from under them by going with their party at virtually the last minute on Sunday ("Baby killer!").
Stupak himself was the best of all. Last week, when the Network nuns defied their own bishops by coming out in favor of the bill, he enfuriated them by declaring that "on right-to-life issues, we don't call the nuns"; days later, he reversed positions and became their hero. Most interestingly, Stupak and Co. not only exhibited a flexibility seldom seen in the anti- abortion movement but forced flexibility from staunch abortion- rights advocates Pelosi and Obama. Both sides, for the time being at least, eschewed the perfect for the good.
Many more fascinating developments still lie ahead. The first is what enactment of this law will do to the fate of the Democrats in general and Democrat-in-Chief Obama in particular. Over the months, the public has expressed ambivalence at best and hostility at worst both to the legislation and to the legislative process itself. Republicans act convinced that they can still tap into fears of "socialized medicine" and fan a backlash to the majority party's parliamentary ploys; Democrats act convinced that once the law is on the books and people see its immediate effects, they'll come around to support it. We'll get a hard sell from both sides right through the November elections.
The second development is development; reforming the health-care system is a work in progress. Next week, Senate Republicans will try to thwart the House's "fixes" to the new law, then try to repeal it altogether; neither attempt is likely to succeed. Progressive Democrats will do the opposite, proposing gradual changes leading to what they've wanted all along, a sleek and seamless single-payer plan. Having a law in place may allow them to do what they couldn't do in committee; as with Medicare — initially indefensible but now indispensable — they believe that once people see government actually doing some good, they'll ask for even more of it.
As with much high drama, the denouement may be as exciting as the climax.