24 November 2015

I Am Afraid of Donald Trump

In 1930, a lot of people thought an Austrian guy named Adolf was a buffoon who couldn't possibly take power and do any damage. His mannerisms were comical and his murderous fantasies would never go anywhere.

In the 1970s a lot of people thought an actor named Ronald who'd been in a movie with a monkey was a joke as a presidential candidate.

Ronald was elected and began a series of actions that turned American politics hard to the right. For one thing, his deregulation of broadcast media enabled Fox "News" to air misleading reports and outright lies under the tagline, "fair and balanced reporting." In that phrase, only the word "and" is accurate.

Fox and their yellow-journalist ilk are serving the same purpose that newspapers of that name served in the US in the 1920s, when people were comparing Jews to rats and Jim Crow laws were in full effect.

And in 2015, a lot of people think Donald Trump is a buffoon who can't be elected, but he's at the top of a pile of buffoonish candidates for the Republican presidential nominee.

And his rhetoric sounds like it's coming straight out of Nazi Germany.

His followers beat up a man at one of his campaign events who yelled, "Black Lives Matter." That sounds like Brownshirts.

He's been telling people he wants Muslims to wear identity badges. That sounds like Hitler.

He's been telling people Mexicans want to come to the US and take "our women."

He told Carly Fiorina to "quit interrupting" during the most recent Republican candidates' debate. Hitler's plan for women? Kinder, Kuche, Kirche: Children, Kitchen, Church.

If Trump is elected, he wants an America with only white men in power. He wants a society ruled by fear and suspicion. Stasi, anyone?

And he has a lot of supporters.

So did Hitler. A lot of people who said, after the Holocaust, "But we didn't know." "But we were told they were criminals." A lot of ordinary Germans who acquiesced in Hitler's program to round up Jews and gays, communists and Romani, the disabled and the chronically ill.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we rounded up Japanese people. People who had immigrated decades earlier, even their children, on the suspicion that they might be enemy spies.

It took a while for the Germans to figure out what to teach their children. When my mother started school in the 1940s, history ended before the Holocaust. But they've figured it out. Germany is taking 800,000 Syrian refugees. It's not going to be easy, and some people are complaining, but by and large the people are reaching out and welcoming them.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that Germany lived through a horrible war in their own country. Being bombed, having family members disappear, losing basic infrastructures, the stuff the Syrians are living through today, is part of living memory in Germany.

The US proposes to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. A tiny quantity. Even if they all came to New York City they would be a tiny fraction of the population, not enough to fill even a square mile.

But Trump is stoking people's fears. Despite an incredibly rigorous process of review, taking up to two years, for every refugee, Trump is insisting that President Obama wants to let terrorists into the country.

Trump has a platform, and he has a lot of willing ears. And I don't have any idea how to persuade his followers that he is a dangerous demagogue being deeply irresponsible with his divisive rhetoric.

He is also peddling lies. He is telling his followers that Obama proposes to resettle 250,000 Syrians, a figure apparently invented out of whole cloth. He claims that 97 percent of African-Americans who die of gun violence in the US are killed by other African-Americans, a claim invented by neo-Nazis whose symbol closely resembles the swastika.

I don't know where to begin in terms of asking people not to believe his fear-mongering mistruths. If you believe Trump, and you don't fact-check his outrageous claims, why would you believe me?

I am not afraid of Syrians. I am afraid of Donald Trump.

22 November 2015

A Judge Just Ruled for the Environment

Eight young people -- preteens and teens -- went to the Washington State Department of Ecology last year and asked them to write carbon emissions guidelines that would protect the state, and themselves, from the effects of climate change. When the state refused, they sued, with the help of the Children's Trust and an attorney from the Western Environmental Law Center.

They won. They won!

Judge Hollis R. Hill ruled that the government has a responsibility to protect natural resources on behalf of the people of the future.

Judge Hill wrote:
... as Petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…. The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law… cannot ensure the survival of an environment in which Petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.
Judge Hill reviewed the Washington State constitution, climate science, and statements made by the Department of Ecology, and concluded:
the state has a constitutional obligation  to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people.”
He also commented in particular on the role of automobile emissions and the failure of the state to deal with them. If you're so inclined, you can go read the whole ruling here.

Who knows? I don't know how many other state constitutions make reference to an obligation to protect natural resources. I don't know what potential there is for this to set precedent. But for the kids of Washington State, it's a pretty big deal.

20 November 2015

Notes from Vienna

My former NYC neighbor, Elizabeth Danto, has for the past two years been living in Vienna. She wrote this in early October:


I live in Vienna and for the last few weeks, I’ve been walking up Liniengasse in the 6th District to look at the newly renovated train station called Westbanhof, at the intersection of Mariahilferstrasse and. Most of the “migrants” arrive there, and though I regularly read the newspapers flashing their neon headlines about the hordes and hordes, I generally find nothing of the kind. Now I saunter through Westbanhof and its parks almost every other day, sniffing the air and looking at the posters, and find myself not only less distraught but actually far happier than I expected to be. And finally, after weeks of disinformation about the refugees arriving in Austria after escaping Syria and other countries hostile to humanity, the N.Y. Times got it right.

I have been watching liberation in the making.  Some governments, especially Hungary, are behaving very badly. For lots of their people though, this exodus is a deliverance; it may be a geopolitical disaster but it is not a human tragedy. It is wonderful that people can escape tyrants and land here. Sometimes Vienna feels like the last safe place on earth. Certainly that was one of my own motivations in moving halfway across the globe.  It’s a socialist city; you can feel in the bones.

Vienna is a quiet city. We know that a group of arrivals have come in only when we hear ambulances whirring down Gumpendorferstrasse.  But as soon as the news broke that the immigrants were leaving the Budapest train station on foot, car pools formed to go pick them up. Those in trains come mostly into the Westbanhof or the Hauptbanhof. I visited the Hauptbanhof last Saturday, and the kids had toys and big teddy bears and were playing in the station’s "mini Kunstler" (little artist") child play area. Most of the adults were on their cell phones (Wifi and phone charging stations are free, yes for migrants too). They looked stressed but not miserable. No one is too happy, of course; it feels like any airport or railroad station where people have been waiting too long.

"Muslims and Refugees Welcome"
Men hang in groups and women in other groups with children. About those photos that seem to show only men, or only women and children? Well, most come from cultures where women don't much mix with the men. Young women are simply not seen. Most of the arrivals seem to be families who are given the option of staying in Austria or moving on to Germany, no questions asked. In the area where one drops off donations, the men, generally, line up for assistance. Tables are laid out with water, food, socks, soap/toothbrush packs and toys. Once in a while a server from a nearby restaurant will walk along the tracks and hand out Chinese food containers or slices of pizza. Groups also cluster in the small parks on either side of the station; many are reading the information brochures or working on forms, or simply sleeping. Finally. Some arrivals are sleeping out in the open at the makeshift camp in Traiskirchen. A local right-wing Blatt complained that people were turning up at Traiskirchen in order to "politicize" the issue but you don't read much of that anymore because not only do the Austrians turn up to politicize, they also bring their children to politicize them, too. By the way, all the residents of Traiskirchen now have accommodations.

There have been collection points around the city for a few weeks now asking for clean clothes, shoes and backpacks. Almost all the food and clothing stores are running donation systems. My neighbor Claudia who teaches kindergarten said she's getting new arrivals every day. A huge pro-immigrant march was scheduled for October 3rd and our adored transgender winner of last year’s Eurovision contest, Conchita Wurst, was to lead the rally in song. [Update: Thousands rallied.]

Remember, the Viennese have been through this before. They’ve learned that support is to be shared by the government and the religious organizations. The Catholic organization, Caritas, has been superb. But each major religion has a state-supported organization, a "Kultusgemeinde" like the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft. The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde had an interesting article (in German, sorry, but parts of their site are in English) defending the Austrian Chancellor, who had recently been criticized for comparing the present situation to the Holocaust. A new portal, How and Where to Help, connects all the major charities and the government services, with opportunities to provide clothes, serve food, offer rides and beds and so forth. There are daily requests for specific kinds of assistance. Yesterday it was for interpreters. Today the requested donation was men's winter clothing. And toys, always toys.

Much of the police effort is going toward chasing down the traffickers, most of whom seem to come from Bulgaria and Romania. People turn over their life savings to the "schleppers" as they are called in German, only to be stranded, starved or killed on their way to safety.

And yes, Germany is taking on hundreds of thousands of the refugees because the country is desperate for workers. The birthrate is the lowest in Europe despite the kind of family benefits that would make Bernie Sanders blush. On the other hand, Germany just stripped Greece of its remaining financial infrastructure, and Merkel's demand for privatization meant that a company based in Frankfurt now owns all the airports in Greece.

What I do find appalling is the endless stream of horror photos of the arrivals. How exploitative can you get? Competing for the Pulitzer prize at the expense of human suffering is cynical and dangerous, and smells of the self-serving ambition of politicians who thrive on resulting false narratives. One of the more infuriating narratives is the distinction between the "good," the "political" refugees as opposed to the "bad," "economic" refugees. This alleged political dimension does not interest the Viennese in the least.

No one knows what the situation will be in six weeks. Municipal elections in Vienna will take place on October 11, and depending on whether the pendulum has swung to the racist Right (as the media predict) or to the supportive Left (which I think is much more likely) the need for moral support will have altered. And much else as well. [Update: Social Democrats remained in power.]

Meanwhile there's the area by the tracks themselves, where the men stand around, waiting, and women in hijabs are sitting here and there. Two signs, one in Arabic, one in English, explain that food and water are available, as well as medical help and translators.

The signs say:

We are doing our best to help you.

You are safe.

The City of Vienna.

19 November 2015

I Fear the Politicians, Not the Terrorists

I grieve for Paris, having visited there last December, and fallen in love during nearly a week of long walks, fabulous art and architecture, and an awesome playground for kids of all ages. I grieve for the Parisians, who will develop the sixth sense that New Yorkers have had since 9/11, knowing when terror threats are up just by the posture of the police officers.

But I'm more frightened by politicians like Donald Trump and Chris Christie than I am about the possibility of another attack on New York City. I'm terrified by the fear of the foreigner that they're stoking, by the fact that they're telling the American people that we should be afraid of Muslims.

I've been trying to write this post without waving the flag of the personal, but I can't seem to get beyond it. My grandfather fought on the wrong side of World War II. He may have commanded a Nazi tank, but the family stories are vague and full of conflict. I could go to the archives in Berlin, but I'm not sure I'm ready to face the truth, whatever it may be.

But this I know: I can not sit silently when people demonize an entire religion, an entire race, an entire people. And I can not sit silently, because of who I am. Because for my whole life I have lived with inherited guilt, with the nagging fear that fascism is somehow part of my genetic code. At the same time, I have lived my entire life feeling a sense of responsibility to speak out against bigotry of any form.

But how to speak out against Trump and Christie and the twenty-odd other governors who have said they don't want any Syrians in their states? I don't even know where to start. I try to think in words and I can only hear a keening in my brain, a mad banshee scream of terror. 

17 November 2015

A Backwards Solution to Junk Mail

I just got an email message from the Story of Stuff project, where they're doing lots of good things to lessen the amount of waste that we produce. This one was about junk mail, and how not to get so much of it.

Story of Stuff sent me an email link to Catalog Choice, an organization that lets people choose what junk mail not to get. Catalogs, credit card offers, reverse mortgages, phone and data plans, all the other unopened junk that comes in the mail, and maybe you tear it in half before you throw it in the recycle bin in the hopes that someone else won't use it to open an account in your name.

And it struck me that while this is probably a useful individual solution, and might be less time-consuming than calling all the mailers individually and telling them to get you off their lists, it's completely backwards, like so much that we do regarding the environment.

If we were serious about stopping the plague of junk mail and its carbon footprint, from production to transportation and delivery to transportation back out of each individual household to dump or recycling facility, we would cut junk mail off at the source.

What if ... we made it illegal to send junk mail? What if you could only get that LLBean catalogue if you told LLBean that you wanted it, and not because some other company sold them your name along with various associated personal information?

As with so many environmental issues, we need to re-think junk mail. We need to approach it not as an individual scourge but as a systemic, structural problem.

I don't know how to change that. But I'm going to start with email messages to Story of Stuff and Catalog Choice, suggesting that they push the junk mailers to rethink unsolicited mail.

23 October 2015

Hope on Guns: Is It Possible?

For the first time in a long, long time I'm feeling a stirring of hope that we can stem the plague of gun violence.

The idea, and I think it's brilliant: when the US Army and the NYPD and all the other government agencies buy guns, put language in the contracts with the manufacturers that holds them accountable for selling to the dealers that evade background checks, which they can do by selling at gun shows or on the internet or in states with lax laws and enforcement.

An interesting statistic: one percent of dealers are responsible for almost 60 percent of the guns used to commit crimes.

I just came from a press conference at Town and Village Synagogue, of which I'm proud to say I'm a member, launching Do Not Stand Idly By. As in, "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed" (Lev. 19:16).

Ten years ago, according to Rabbi Laurence Sebert, the major cause of death among children was car crashes; today, it's gun violence. And Sen. Chuck Schumer pointed out that we have limitations on the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech; we need limitations on the Second Amendment, guaranteeing the right to bear arms.

This strategy to put direct pressure on gun manufacturers by way of public-sector contracts is the brainchild of Metro IAF, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders. Turns out that 40 percent of guns sold in the US go to the military and law enforcement agencies. That's a lot of buying power, and they want to use it by working with police chiefs and mayor's offices around the country to make manufacturers accountable.

You'd think the guns are all made in the US, right? Hmmm. Turns out that manufacturers from Germany, Austria, Italy and Brazil are making a lot of these guns. And they're giving NRA lobbyists a lot of money to push for unrestricted gun sales.

So what can YOU do? Go talk to your local police chief, your mayor, your council person. Get them to add their name to the Gun Buyers’ Research Group Commitment Form. Write to your representatives in Congress and tell them to get behind this initiative. Let me know what you think.

16 October 2015

Back on the Soap Box

I don't know when the world decided it needed liquid soap instead of soap in bars. I think it had something to do with the emergence of germ-o-phobia and the addition of anti-bacterial chemicals to everything a couple of decades ago. And I totally get that bars of soap in places like public bathrooms can totally be germ magnets.

But for home use? Most soap sold in bars is still packaged in paper.
Liquid soap, however, is packaged in plastic. And it's ... kind of the same thing as bar soap, except with a lot of water added. So you get a double-whammy of extra petroleum: the single-use plastic package that goes in the landfill when the soap is all gone*, and the extra water weight that makes up extra shipping volume and weight.

Bar soap works great for handwashing. It works great as a body wash in the shower. Certain bar soaps (I like Dr. Bronner's) work well on dishes. And you can even get bar shampoo from a couple of manufacturers.

Just like body wash, there are lots of varieties: glycerin soap that won't clog your pores, deodorant soap, soap with lots of moisturizer to keep your skin from drying out. Some of the bar shampoos work better with dry hair, some better with oily scalp.

So, do me a favor? Think about switching from the plastic bottle full of soap to a nice solid bar the next time you run out.
* IF the soap is all gone. The design of a lot of the packaging makes it very difficult to use up all of the contents, so if you don't think to cut apart the bottle,  you end up throwing a quarter of the contents away.