Saturday, January 28, 2017

Who Should Get In?

So I mentioned this in an earlier post but tomorrow morning the middle school students from all the synagogue schools and the local day school are gathering for our annual Community Holocaust Education Day.  This is the result of several months of planning between all the education directors and principals of the aforementioned schools.  It turns out that our theme is refugees.  The morning will start with students getting an overview of both US laws (not including President Trump's recent Executive Order) and the Jewish values that would inform someone in a decision to allow someone seeking refugee status into the United States.  They will then, in groups, be given three real cases with changed names, to debate and choose one they will argue for in front of some volunteer judges.  The judges, all local attorneys and court judges, will decide if the arguments were strong enough.  When all groups have gone we will reveal who the people are.  Some famous for a variety of reasons.  The students will also see a play about MS St. Louis.  A story of Jewish refugees turned away from the United States in 1939 to have many died at the hands of the Nazis.  By the way if you want to feel the reality of this I suggest you follow The St. Louis Manifest Twitter feed.

I am not sure how we will explain the recent issues around refugees. President Trump's attempt to limit people coming to the US from 7 countries, with a caveat that he is actually prioritizing Christians over Muslims for future immigration is something beyond what I ever thought I would need to explain to students.   The ISIS leadership is killing anyone who doesn't follow their ideology and perversion of Islam, including other Muslims. Yet some how the current administration doesn't see this and sees a potential terrorist in every Muslim from the Middle East.   What is worse is the cavalier attitude of the President and many in the Republican Party seem to have toward even those people have already gone through serious vetting in part because they are  people who helped the US war effort in Syria against ISIS at the risk of their own lives.   They have been cleared for entry in the US and  some were literally on planes enroute to come to US who are now detained. It has caused average Americans to rally at airports and teams of lawyers to help people with valid VISAs to simply get through clearance into the US.  What is also frightening in scope is that permanent residents of the US with Green Cards are not being allowed to return to the US in the chaos of this order.

This is not normal for our country in the last 70 years.  We had learned our lesson after we saw the tortured Jews in camps, heard the horrors of gas chambers and mass graves.  Our country stood up with many others to take in those fleeing later atrocities around the world.  We weren't always perfect but we had a plan.  Today it seems the new President is blocking people who not only come from troubled places but only apparently interested in blocking people of one faith.  What is interesting about the decision is that the countries he chose have not been the origin of anyone who attempted or committed a major terror attack on the United States.  While citing September 11th's attacks in his order, the President left off the country who produced the leader of the attack's operations, (Egypt) and the majority of the terrorists who carried it out (Saudi Arabia).  It may be worth noting that both he and his Secretary of State nominee have business interests in those countries.

Now someone will bring up that during the Obama Administration there was a temporary ban on refugees from Iraq coming to the United States.  That is true.  In early 2009 it was discovered that two men who were involved in attacks on US troops in Iraq come to the US under refugee rules.  A system that hadn't been fully worked out at the time.  The President stopped all refugee applications from Iraq so that efforts could be made to see who may have slipped through the vetting process as it existed.  This was not ideal, however it was a targeted program with the intent of making sure that we weren't vulnerable. In 2006,  Waad Ramadan Alwan was arrested in Iraq and confessed to being an insurgent, but was released.  He later applied and received refugee status only to be uncovered as a terrorist in Kentucky years later.  It was after that the Obama administration worked to tighten security around Iraqi refugees and made the process of seeking refugee status much harder.  I remember meeting Iraqi refugees in Jordan in 2010.  There was a man who desperately wanted to come to the United States and after we spoke for sometime the refugee worker told me that was never going to happen.  He had been found to be connected to Saddam's Baathist party and he was a low priority.  He probably hasn't left Jordan, and that is okay with me.  Being concerned about who might be coming in and finding a troubling past is what we should be doing.  But the President's blanket banning of people from several countries that are at war, including those people who helped our troops navigate the language and culture of those places, for no reason except you think they MIGHT be terrorist or become terrorists is insane and anti-American.

We have seen horrible terror attacks on the US in recent years.  The thing is that the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks were committed by two people born in the United States and radicalized here.  The wife of the San Bernardino shooter was a foreign national, but from Pakistan (not on the list) who lived in Saudi Arabia.  This attacks were in part inspired by the notion that America was at war with Islam, a common message coming from groups like ISIS to those living in the west.  A message that will be bolstered by this Executive Order as it will be seen by many in the Muslim world as an attack on all Muslims.  As countries like Jordan (who has suffered terrorist attacks in the past) and Israel, who you may have heard has a bit of touchy relationship with Arabs in general, take in refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria the United States is blocking people who have helped our troops and their elderly parents and wives and children.  All of whom have spent at least two years being vetted.  That is simply wrong and that is not the America I was taught in school, nor experienced my entire life.

As a country we are always learning.  We haven't always gotten it right from a moral stand point.  We began with having slavery as a staple of the economy of the south, we blocked women from voting and many other areas open to men, we abused imported workers, drove the Native population to the brink of extinction, and not so long ago rounded up people and put them in camps for simply being born of Japanese decent.  But each time we learned.  We saw our consequences and tried to do better. When President Obama was faced with a crisis he didn't didn't take a sledge hammer to the problem and ban all refugees, he formed a targeted response with the intent of making the system better.  President Trump is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist by banning the most vulnerable and least likely to to hurt our nation while ignoring the sources of previous terror attacks.  This is not about security, it is about ignorance, it is about hate and it is about a man who has no skills at being a real leader and hopes that if he throws enough tantrums that he will be admired by someone.

The fear and ignorance in the middle 20th century led to the US closing its door on Jews seeking to flee a tyrant that was certainly going to kill them.  The extent of that horror was found out way too late for 6 million Jews and 5 million others who died at the hands of the Nazi death machines.  There was enough blood for enough hands to never fully be clean because of it.  We are at a similar place now.  President Trump is fond of saying ISIS is chopping off heads in Syria and Iraq and that is true.  If today's order stands for any period of time, the President is sending them new heads to adorn their strongholds.  And Mr. President and your minions should know, that blood won't wash off even if using your gold plated fixtures.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What I Said This Morning to my Member of Congress

This is the letter I sent to my Congresswoman this morning.  It is part rant and part call to her better angels and actually stand up for America and not party.  

Dear Representative  Brooks,

It is clear that the President of the United States and the leader of your party is obsessed with the notion that he will always need bigger crowds and more votes than ever before to feel comfortable.  Reports are that he is outraged by the vote totals and further by the Women's Marches around the country last Saturday.  It is clear that this has led to him fully buying into both fake news stories about voter fraud and his own apparent conclusion that 3-5 million people voted illegally in the last election.  (Thus suggesting the popular vote total was erroneous.)  This is disturbing on many levels and want to see if you, as my representative, can do something about the ongoing lying coming from a podium with the White House seal on it. 

1.  The crowd for the inauguration was smaller than in 2009 and likely smaller than many other swearing in ceremonies in modern times.  That is fact.  The idea that the White House press secretary lied about that and blamed the media is not only troubling it is worthy of a dictator's minister of information, not an American Press Secretary.

2.  President Trump's continued harping, to members of Congressional leadership, of this voter fraud is clearly not something that will make the country great. (BTW we are great now and have been) It will make us look dysfunctional on the world stage.  That is dangerous to national security. 

3.  An investigation in voter fraud in 2016 will cost the tax payers a great deal of money and will in no way find any substantial voter fraud.  States Attorneys General have already weighed in on this.  Yes there is some voter fraud, mostly in the absentee ballot system or by a handful of people who vote outside where they live.  (did a republican in Indiana do that?) but in no way has been seen to sway an election. 

4.  In person voter fraud, for example, voting as a dead person, would have to occur on a massive level to have any impact on most elections.  If non-citizens are going to vote using false documentation which is the argument they open themselves up to a system that is built to catch them.  Why would someone who hides in the shadows of society do that?  To what purpose.

5.  Three million people is a large number and about 1% of the voting population in the Presidential elections.  Who is quietly organizing them?  How is this a secret?  If there are non-citizens voting they must be in collusion with many officials.  Is the President accusing the the Democratic party of being so smart they could organize this but so dumb they only did in a state they were going to win in any case unless Ronald Reagan came back from the dead? 

Rep Brooks, you are seen as a straight shooter by many Democrats that I respect.  I have been highly critical of you but this goes beyond party and frankly beyond politics.  This is about our nation, this is about the integrity of the United States.  I am not like you in  how you see the path to honoring our American values, but what I know is that you do want to honor them from your perspective.  This is not normal.  Please stand in the well of the House and say you will not vote to appropriate money for this snipe hunt.  If you have a specific concern then craft legislation that protects voting integrity without blocking legal voters from access to the polls. Indiana may have done that with its voter ID law.  I see no evidence of massive voter suppression here.  (I do see it in other states and the courts have as well).  But please, the GOP is looking for grown ups.  Be one.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

President Trump

I was set to sit down after this Shabbat and write about the incredible nature of our country in that yesterday we watched the peaceful transition of power from one highly popular leader to a less than popular leader of a different party.  Today about 1 million people, mostly women, around the country marched to stand against the perceived dangers posed by President Trump to rights.  But I can't help but pivot to the fact that this afternoon the new President stood in front of the Memorial Wall at the CIA and attacked the media for reporting what he said about the intelligence community and complained that the media lied about the numbers at his swearing in. Seriously, he used dead CIA agents as a backdrop to attack the media.  It was like pissing on their graves.  

Then Sean Spicer, his press secretary, walked into the White House briefing room, and again said that the media lied about the numbers at the inauguration.  Seriously, he said the pictures are wrong and that there is no way to know real numbers.  Then said it was the largest crowd ever, period.  That is simply not true. Not even close.  When President Obama was sworn in for the first time the crowd was incredibly larger and in fact every photo clearly shows this.  This is gaslighting coming from the Executive Branch of the United States of America.  This has brought both conservatives and liberals together suggesting that it is not nearly Presidential.

Is this what we are going to have to get used to?  Think about this, the President of the United States is whining about the size of his crowd and lying about it.  Lies that are easily checked.  This is a serious matter, the President and his people are making the media somehow the liars in this.  And the Trump voters will remember this and believe the lies of Trump and his team.  This is insane.

You don't have to believe what I believe, you could have voted for Trump, you could say the marches today around the world were stupid, but if you are going to argue that the crowds at the inauguration were the biggest of all time then you are a either a sheep of the Trump team or an idiot.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Term Limits are Not the Answer

US Senator Ted Cruz and House Representative Ron DeSantis proposed an amendment to the constitution, once again, creating term limits on members of both houses of Congress. This idea often gets traction because the idea that there should be no professional politicians and that in the past this didn't happen.  In fact there were members of the first Congress in 1789 who served more than 40 years.  The current incoming Congress has an average in the House of service of 9.4 years and the Senate is 10.1 years.  Less than 5 terms in the House and 2 terms in the Senate.  This is actually a slight uptick from the 114th Congress, and ends a string of declining averages over the last several election cycles.  While many incumbents who run get re-elected at an alarming rate, and the number who run again and again is up significantly there still is an ongoing turnover that takes place every election cycle.  This year there are about 55 new members of the House or about 12% which is about average for turnover in most industries.  The problem that we see is that there are people in the Congress that many people don't like and yet they get re-elected over and over again. But I would argue that whether it is a Congressional district or a Senator in a state I don't live it, it should not be up to me to decide who cannot represent the people who do live there.  But there are two major problem that come up with how the system works that makes beating an incumbent who wants to hold onto a seat difficult.  

The first is simple gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is a old concept that dates back to 1812 and redistricting in Massachusetts by then Governor Elbridge Gerry.  A political cartoon likened the shape of a state district to a salamander and called it a Gerry-mander.  The name stuck. Today both parties have worked to draw bizarrely shaped districts to encompass pockets of party loyal constituents.  In recent years the rise of local Republican parties in many states have led to some bullet proof districts for both parties, also the concentration of parties into a handful of places in any state leads to states like Virginia which cast many more votes for Democratic candidates but still the Republicans won a majority of the seats.  There have been times when the opposite has occurred.  Gerrymandering is a political perk of winning at the state level and is difficult to attack in court.  There are times that it has been challenged and things have changed but it is not an easy task.  North Carolina is facing a challenge right now, but the problem has existed for several election cycles.  In 2010, under boundaries drawn by Democrats, Republicans won 54 percent of the congressional vote but ended up with one fewer member of Congress than Democrats. By 2012, new districts drawn by Republicans flipped the numbers and while more than 2 million votes for Congress were cast for the Democratic candidates the results was a delegation made up of 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats.  This party specific district drawing will lead to the party's choice becoming the the winner before the actual election and in about 7% of the Congressional elections there are unopposed candidates.  When the election is set it is harder to challenge someone and often results in more hardcore elected officials.  

The other problem is laziness.  We have term limits and they are called elections.  If we truly wanted to drain the swamp or throw the bums out, a phrase we often hear, we would vote.  But alas we don't.  In the 2016 election less than 60% of the country's eligible voters voted and in the off year of 2014 when our Congressional representatives were all up for re-election and a third of the Senate only 36% of the those eligible voted. Someone tried to argue with me we need term limits because in Kentucky Mitch McConnell was re-elected but no one in Kentucky likes him.  He won with 56% of the vote in 2014.  However, while his approval rating was low he led every poll in his primary (which had 5 other candidates) and won the general.  The problem of the 3.5 million registered voters in Kentucky that year, only 1.4 million bothered to cast a ballot.  So people seem to dislike him but not enough to go and actually vote.  

There are clearly other reasons that incumbency is beneficial.  There is power of the office to reach constituents through media and the use of office to inform people what you are doing for them in Washington.  Money that comes into the campaigns from lobbyists as tenure gives one more power in crafting legislation.  I could probably list dozens of things.  But none of those would be solved in any real way by term limits.  The only thing the term limit would do is shift the power to lobbyists and bureaucrats who will remain and centralize their power when a congressional member leaves town.  So what can we do.  

For one end political redistricting.  Use computer algorithms to determine districts based on population and geography connectivity.  There are plenty of places in the country that have community symbiosis that should be represented by the same person.  After that just carve out based on the number of people living there.  A district shouldn't swirl around, geographically speaking, four other districts so that it creates a population that benefits one party while at the same time breaking up other populations in several districts that would vote for the opposing party.  This is happening today.  

Also there has to be a way to get more people involved in the elections. In recent years Republicans have passed laws that make it harder to vote in many places, often targeting Democratic areas.  Voter ID laws that are clearly designed to stop certain groups from voting are passed under the guise of stopping voter fraud. A fraud that doesn't exist.  We should be making it easier to vote than harder.  We should be making the act of voting not a nuisance but something to celebrate.  Who voted are part of public records, maybe there can be a fine for not voting without an excuse.  

We are living in the greatest Western Democracy, (yes I know we are a Republic so before you say it google the term Western Democracy) on paper and one that functionally is off the rails.  When about half of those people who can vote don't and when a majority of voters want one kind of candidate and yet get another, then something is wrong.  Very wrong.  

Perhaps this election will be an eye opener.  As the new President takes office in 12 days we all must look at ourselves and seek an answer to Washington failures but Term Limits on Congress are not the answer and frankly are not an answer.  It is up to us to be more engaged and engage our friends.  The Constitution limits the scope of government and gives much power to the people.  The most important one is the right to choose who is going to create the rules we live by and within the Constitution move the country forward on a domestic level and as a world power.  When we don't vote, when we allow political wonks to decide the choices we have then we fail.  If the Michigan 13th wants to continue to make John Conyers the longest serving member that is none of my business.  If they create a way to make opposing him improbable than it is.  If Kentucky wants Mitch McConnell to serve as their Senator for the next 3 terms, mazel tov, but if they don't and yet won't vote him they deserve him.  We can't decide for other people who they want to hire to be their voice in Washington.  So let's give them other voices to choose from.  Be informed, inform others, challenge the way districts are drawn, question where the money comes from to help incumbents run and in the end, Vote.  Vote in primaries and vote in general elections.  Vote the off years and in special elections.  Vote every time you can. Ask elected officials to make voting easier.  Early voting, mail, and eventually internet voting all have to become part of our experience with the process.  Hold media accountable when they decide to ignore candidates for whatever reason or promote one over others because he is entertaining.  Be part of the process.  

Term limits are a bad idea because the solve nothing except to make it easier for us to be lazy.  Let's stop being lazy and make some real change.  

Why Hate Crimes Laws Are the Right Thing To Do

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