Whither the Beloved Country
We have just been through the dirtiest, most acrimonious presidential campaign that I can remember, the acrimony has not stopped on either side, and my mood is down. Like most American Jews since the Great Depression, my sympathies have been aligned with those of the Democratic Party. I say “have been” because the party is listing so far to port that it is in danger of capsizing. One of my first political memories was visiting my maternal grandfather ע''ה, who actually lived and raised two daughters through the Great Depression, mentioning or perhaps hearing somebody else mention President Eisenhower, and hearing my grandfather say in substance: A Republican – yuk. I reached voting age in 1970, with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 nationwide. I did not wait, but went to the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections to register as soon as possible, before the Orthodox establishment got on the bandwagon and instructed all of us to register and vote, because if we did not then our concerns would not count. I would have registered even if the gedolim had told us not to; it is my sacred obligation as an American and many good Americans died so that we could choose those who would govern us. Of course, I registered as a Democrat and remain so registered. Where I live the Democratic nomination is usually tantamount to election, and I wanted my vote to mean something. The first Presidential election in which I voted was in 1972, Richard Nixon was seeking a second term against Democrat George McGovern with the war in Vietnam still raging. As a student at Columbia I was safe from the draft with a 2S deferment, in what turned out to be the last age cohort where 2S (undergraduate student) deferments were given, and I dutifully completed the paperwork to renew the deferment each year. I voted for Nixon, the Republican, feeling that his Democratic challenger would sell small allies like Israel down the river, and that his domestic ideas were too far left to work. Answering a pollster at Columbia that I voted for Richard Nixon took some political courage, but that was okay.
The primary season leading up to last summer’s nominating conventions and last November’s general election was a disaster. The Republican side went pretty much as I expected, the Republicans having been the “party of stupid” for quite a while. Anybody they nominate could be counted on to be a science denier and/or Christian fundamentalist. A Republican presidency is inevitably bad news for science (especially biology) teachers, as well as knowledgeable citizens concerned about climate change and members of religious minorities staunchly defending separation of church and state. This time, however, a businessman with no experience in elective office threw his hat into the ring and proceeded to double down on what has become typical Republican buffoonery. His name? Donald Trump. From the beginning he made no secret of his racism and xenophobia. His utterances about Mexicans and disabled people in particular were what few citizens in this day and age, and certainly no candidate for our highest office, would dare to say in polite company. This wouldn’t bother me, I being quite politically incorrect myself, if his statements were true, but that was far from the case. He repeated age-old canards and it was clear that he believed them to be true. People hearing him were mostly confident that he would have no chance at the nomination, but they failed to reckon with Americans’ (myself included) frustration with a long running war seemingly going nowhere, with terrorist attacks occurring with disturbing frequency, with increasing racial tensions and police violence, and so forth. Americans, except for those in the liberal bastions in the Northeast and California, were fed up and wanted change. They got more than they bargained for.
As for the Democrats, they have quite a few men who would have made good Presidents, but they were all afraid to challenge Hillary Clinton, as if she was already a sitting President from their own party. The only man to run against her was Bernie Sanders, a Jew who grew up in Brooklyn, but an avowed socialist not to be trusted. He gave Ms. Clinton a better fight than most of us expected, but in the end he lost the nomination to the former President’s wife. She was widely regarded in middle America as the ultimate insider, too invested in the status quo to make the changes they deemed necessary. Her victory would be tantamount to a third term for Obama, of whom we were not enamored. This image was not helped by a scandal involving emails from her tenure as President Obama’s Secretary of State having been stored on her private server where they were vulnerable to hacking. I, male chauvinist that I am, was not about to support any woman in time of war short of Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher. So now the major parties served up two lousy candidates and we were expected to choose the lesser evil. Had I lived in a “battleground state” that could go either way, I would have swallowed hard, held my nose and voted for Trump, who at least advocated a tougher posture toward our foreign enemies. But I live in New York, and it was a foregone conclusion that New York would be carried by Hillary Clinton. I therefore cast a write-in protest vote for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, peace be upon them.
Then the impossible happened. Shades of Dewey vs Truman in 1948. All the polls predicted a victory for Clinton, who narrowly won the popular vote. However, due to the peculiar method prescribed by the Constitution for electing the President, Trump narrowly won enough states to give him a comfortable majority in the Electoral College. Therefore, despite some childish political maneuvering aimed at getting enough electors to betray their trust and deny Trump the election, Trump was elected and duly sworn in on January 20. It has been a frenetic month and, for me, a sad one. True to his campaign pledges, he appears to be doing an about face in our Middle East policy. His appointees for secretary of state and ambassador to Israel are friendly to Israel and see it as America’s only strong and reliable ally in a very rough neighborhood. He is likely to pay lip service to the “two-state solution,” actually a three-state solution since the “Palestinians” already have a state called Jordan that sits on 80% of Mandatory Palestine and has a “Palestinian” majority. But indications are that he will stand down as Israel’s popular right-wing government creates facts on the ground that will make large land giveaways in Judea and Samaria impossible. He has a much warmer personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu than President Obama ever did. But that is where the optimism and satisfaction end.
The rest of his acts in office betray his utter lack of experience in government. He promised in his campaign that he would “make America safe again.” With crime at an all-time low, one can only assume he meant safe from terrorists. He wasted no time imposing, by executive order, a 90-day moratorium on immigration and acceptance of refugees from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Yemen. These are all countries that are known either to be state sponsors of terrorism or to export terrorists abroad, or not to have functioning governments that can provide information on prospective immigrants and refugees. The moratorium was supposed to give the government time to map out the “extreme vetting” that the new President wants put in place to keep out evildoers while letting in legitimate immigrants and refugees. There is no question in my mind that the President meant well but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The President and his advisors used a meat-axe when a scalpel would have been more appropriate. His order included holders of “green cards” authorizing permanent residence in the country, as well as holders of valid visas. It resulted in chaos at always-busy airports like JFK in New York and LAX in Los Angeles. Volunteer lawyers and others hastily made their way to the airports to assist those people who now found themselves in limbo. Later on, watchdog groups obtained court orders putting the Presidents order on hold; Trump plans to appeal and to pursue other avenues, like using the proverbial scalpel to carve out another order more likely to pass muster. We know there will be terrorists embedded with the refugees; ISIS says as much. We also let in, a century ago, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants knowing that we were also importing the Sicilian Mafia. The difference is that Mafiosi usually kill one another, one at a time, for motives that are entirely economic. The Muslim terrorists that we’re fighting go in for mass casualty attacks and their aim is to bring down the American government and impose their own tyrannical brand of Islam on all of us; not even the Muslim immigrants that were here for years pursuing the American dream have any use for them. We have to vet these people in their home countries before they get here. If they’re coming with families or if they are single older men they are probably legit. Single men of fighting age are more likely to be terrorists and should be turned away. Those likely to face religious persecution up to and including murder (i.e. Christians and Yazidis) are most unlikely to be terrorists. Some would-be immigrants and refugees might have to be quarantined on Ellis Island or elsewhere pending further investigation, as was done at the turn of the 20th century. Those that are let in should be let in slowly, so that the communities in which they settle will have time to absorb them and they will have time to adjust to our culture.
The media in describing the President’s order and the way it was going to be carried out before the courts intervened were most unhelpful. They kept writing and speaking about a “Muslim ban,” when it was neither Muslim nor a ban (Remember the Holy Roman Empire which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire?). The President wanted a temporary breathing space so he could figure out how to admit legitimate immigrants and refugees while keeping us safe from terrorists; by calling it a ban the media implied that it was permanent. In reality the President sought an indefinite ban only in the case of Syria. The media also characterized the affected countries as “Muslim majority countries,” as though that was the President’s reason for imposing a moratorium. The media weren’t lying, but were not telling us the whole truth either. There are over 20 Muslim-majority countries on earth; the moratorium covered only seven. Turkey and Indonesia, for example, are overwhelmingly Muslim but they were not included in the 90-day freeze. Why? They do not sponsor terrorism or export terrorists, and they have stable governments with which we can do business. The media will not allow for the possibility that the President might be telling the truth and should be given a chance, having been chosen by the American people in a democratic election. Who elected the pundits that are pooh-poohing him at every turn?
The new President is giving us cause for concern in other areas too. Like Reagan before him, his approach to filling his cabinet is to have a lot of foxes guarding a lot of henhouses. His attorney general gives the impression that he intends to ride roughshod over the Constitution, his chief strategist keeps company with white supremacists, his Secretary of Education wants to divert resources from public schools to private, including charter, schools. His chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency wants to gut the law authorizing that very agency, his Secretary of Energy wants to double down on coal and oil production, environment be damned, and so forth and so on. To top it all off, President Trump is a raving science denier. In what has become typical Republican pig-headedness, he insists that climate change is a hoax and to hell with all the evidence. He cannot be expected to advocate in international circles for policies that might keep the planet capable of supporting billions of human beings, policies that must be global to be effective.
Last but not least, when the next anti-evolution bill is passed and is challenged in court, we scientists and science educators will not be able to rely on the White House, the Department of Education or the Department of Justice to have our backs. As a community and as individual teachers we will have to grow “stones” and take risks to be faithful to our obligations as professionals. I wrote to a Facebook friend at the beginning of the Trump administration that the President’s first 100 days will be a time of watchful waiting. Developments since then make me change that to “dark foreboding.” I hope I am wrong, but hope alone will not suffice.
Since both parties have gone to the extremes and show no signs of slowing down, let alone going back, we are in desperate need of a third party. This party will be unabashedly pragmatic and centrist, faithful to the Constitution and to the traditions that have made this country great. It will provide a home to Rockefeller-Javits Republicans as well as Kennedy-Johnson Democrats, neither of whom are welcome in their own parties. Since it will pitch a big tent, there will be vigorous debate but that debate will be civil, free from the name-calling and ad hominem attacks that have characterized American political discourse of late. The role of third parties in American politics traditionally was to be a gadfly, putting the major parties back on track when they got derailed, as is the case now. If it succeeds, well and good. If not, it should displace one of the major parties, preferably the Republicans. Otherwise I see little hope for the world my grandchildren will grow up in, and we will have betrayed our obligation to leave our children a world in better shape than it was before we came on the scene.