Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Evolving Standards Of Decency: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

"Evolving standards of decency" is a phrase used in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to analyze whether a given practice is cruel and unusual.  While the Supreme Court has so far refused to find that capital punishment offends "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," it feels as if we are getting closer as the death penalty is increasingly seen as too fallible and too costly to remain on the books.

Popular support for the death penalty has fallen significantly.  Six states have repealed it over the last six years, leaving 32 states with the death penalty on their books.  (Nebraska may be next.)  In four other states, most recently Pennsylvania, governors have imposed moratoria on executions, recognizing the inherent problems with their death penalty schemes.  The rate of executions around the country is rapidly declining and imposition of death sentences is at a historic low.  Meanwhile ever more exonerations are uncovering deep flaws in the criminal justice system.  And studies and reports continue to reveal the racist underpinnings of the death penalty.  (Here's the latest on that subject from my friend Marc Bookman.)

Yet some states are going in the other, less evolved, more gruesome direction.  With pharmaceutical companies balking at having their products used in executions, there is a nationwide shortage of the drugs formerly used for lethal injection.  One would hope this would give state officials the plausible excuse to reconsider the efficacy, if not morality, of continuing to kill its citizens.  Alas, some are insisting on finding alternative, even more unsavory solutions (pun intended).  Like diabolical junior chemists, they cobble together their own untested lethal combinations or obtain drugs from unregulated and undisclosed sources and test them on their human subjects.

And so, executions go forward, each one with its own unique set of macabre circumstances that dehumanize executioner and executed alike.  The latest example is Missouri, which just put to death Cecil Clayton, a 74-year old man who suffered from dementia, had an IQ of 71, and was missing a significant part of his brain.  He was the tenth person to be executed this year in the United States (half of whom were people of color, by the way).  In case you're keeping score:  4 in Texas, 2 in Missouri, 2 in Georgia and 1 in Oklahoma.  And for a worldwide perspective, other verifiable executions in 2015 have taken place in Afghanistan, China, Iran, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

Kelly Gissendaner was set to be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years, after being denied clemency despite a remarkable transformation that included obtaining a theology degree.  Gissendaner endured hours of anticipatory terror while officials concerned with the "cloudiness" of the lethal drug, weighed whether or not to go forward with the execution anyway.  Doubts over the drug's efficacy finally led to postponement. 

Other states, frustrated with the difficulties in securing lethal drugs, are taking a different route to infamy.  Oklahoma's state house has passed a bill to allow use of a gas chamber (officially, death by "nitrogen hypoxia.")  And Utah's governor just signed a bill to bring back the firing squad (which Oklahoma also authorizes).  Electrocution, hanging and firing squads still remain on the books elsewhere.

Electric chairs and gas chambers were developed to be more humane than hanging, which was the most common method of execution in the U.S. until the end of the 19th Century.  These killing machines, however, proved pretty grisly in their own right, and gave way to lethal injection -- which medical science has belatedly shown is not nearly as painless as believed and, in any event, has become impractical.

The "evolving standards of decency" standard implicitly acknowledges that we are inexorably moving forward; that while we may not be there yet, we are evolving towards a point where the death penalty will become morally unacceptable.  Reverting  back to discarded and disreputable methods of killing seems like a last gasp (pun intended) effort to maintain an unsustainable, barbaric system.  It reeks of desperation and blood lust.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Scared Shitless Into Pragmatism: Ready For Hillary -- The Far Lesser Evil

"We're too great a nation to allow the evil-doers to affect our soul and our spirit."  -- G.W. Bush
Progressives (myself included) invariably bemoan the lack of a legitimate presidential candidate that mirrors our values.  We pine for an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders but when the primary smoke clears, we are generally left with the Establishment Candidate.  We are then confronted with the unpalatable choice of abstaining altogether, throwing our vote away on a principled but purely symbolic third-party candidate or voting for the Democratic nominee as the lesser of two evils.  With the exception of my first presidential election in 1980, when I voted for John Anderson instead of Jimmy Carter, I have invariably gone with the third option -- voting for the decidedly lesser evil.  In 2016, this will be the only option. 

The Ralph Nader Debacle of 2000, that ushered in George W. Bush, should have buried once and for all the cynical, self-defeating argument that there is no substantive difference between the two parties.  Think about what the world would be like if Nader had declined to run in battleground states or his supporters woke up to reality and held their noses while voting for Al Gore.  No hanging chads.  Perhaps no 9/11.  Certainly no Iraq War, no Guantanamo and no torture.  An efficient and humane response to Katrina.  A liberal majority on the Supreme Court with no Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Alioto. Dick Cheney as a mere footnote to history.  I could go on and on.  But even if this inconvenient truth has not shamed us into having a more pragmatic view of presidential politics, we only need to look at the current crop of increasingly unhinged GOP candidates to realize that the lesser evil doesn't look so bad when the greater evil becomes ever more evil. 

Nevertheless, with the ascension of Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee -- and the candidate who has by far the best chance of defeating any Republican candidate -- there is already a premature disengagement by some progressives who say they are disinclined to support her -- who will no longer resign themselves to voting for the lesser of evils.  This is madness.

Now, I've never been a fan of Hillary Clinton.  As a Senator she not only voted for one of the worst foreign policy decisions in our nation's history she repeatedly went in front of the cameras to cheerlead in the run up to it.  23 Senators voted against the Iraq Resolution.  Clinton was not one of them, and her belated apology was lame.  Her coziness with Wall Street, and Goldman Sachs in particular, is deeply troubling and does not augur well for an aggressive approach to rein in the financial industry.  The Clinton Foundation appears rampant with conflicts of interest.  The incessant scandals -- self-inflicted and manufactured -- are exhausting.  And, finally, her husband, is not the man I would choose to have the ear of the next president.  When I think of the Clinton Presidency (speaking of the lesser of two evils), I am reminded of his war on drugs, so-called habeas reform, so-called welfare reform, DOMA, and deregulation of the financial industry that helped spur the 2008 economic meltdown.  With the singular exception of DOMA, I have never heard Hillary disavow any of these disastrous policies. 

On the other hand, one only has to do another brief thought experiment.  Just hypothesize what the world would look like if the next president is any one of the dim characters that comprises the Republican clown car and you should be scared shitless into becoming an avid Hillary supporter. 

Start with the United States Supreme Court.  Given the advanced ages of the justices (Ginsburg is 82, Scalia is 79, Kennedy is 78 and Breyer is 76), the next president will most likely have the opportunity to appoint more than one new justice, thereby impacting the balance of the Court for at least another generation.  The difference between Obama's appointees ( Kagan and Sotomayor) and Bush's (Roberts and Alioto) couldn't be more stark.  Another Republican appointee would create a rock solid conservative majority that would surely overturn Roe v. Wade, further dismantle Voting Rights, revisit and overturn the Affordable Care Act, dismantle federal regulations on everything from the environment to Wall Street, further limit available remedies for individuals against corporations, allow for greater intrusion of religion into the public sphere, and roll back advances in civil rights and criminal justice.

That alone should be enough to frighten any sentient being into supporting the Democratic nominee.  But there is so much more to be afraid of. 

Even if some Republicans have finally admitted that climate change really exists, not one of them believes that the government should do anything about it.  Imagine four years spent reversing the modest efforts of the Obama Administration in reducing greenhouse gases combined with the dismantling of the EPA, reversal of environmental regulations and encouraging unfettered fossil fuel development. 

As for economic priorities, while House and Senate Republicans can't seem to reach immediate consensus over their respective budget plans, their only area of dispute is over how to overcome caps on military spending.  There seems to be ready agreement among virtually all Republicans with regard to further tax cuts favoring the wealthy, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, deregulating Wall Street, gutting environmental regulations, making drastic cuts to food stamps, Medicaid and other essential aspects of the safety net.  Not even Pell Grants are safe.  Republicans' unstated but irrefutable goal, as Paul Krugman summarized, consists of "huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts."

Foreign policy for Republicans has not evolved since Bush-Cheney invaded Iraq.  Relying on the same blinkered and unrepentant advisors, it seems to consist mostly of jingoistic saber-rattling, disdain for diplomacy, and the belief that putting "boots on the ground" is the sure-fire solution to defeating terrorism. It is worth pointing out that three potential candidates signed the infamous open letter to Iran in an effort to derail nuclear arms talk, and no other Republican candidate has criticized this irresponsible, if not treasonous, lapse of judgment and protocol. 

Terrified yet?

Progressives don't have to sell out.  They can stay pure at the local level.  They can -- and should -- work to elect more liberal candidates in Congress which, more than anything else, will help push a moderate president leftward.  But when it comes to the presidency, there is no alternative but to rally around the Democratic candidate -- whoever she or he is.  It is no longer about choosing the lesser of evils as much as it is defeating the evil-doers. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

President Obama's Exceptional Speech

"What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?" -- -- President Obama, March 8, 2015
After President Obama got walloped for having the audacity to observe, in the course of cautioning us not to condemn Islam because of the barbaric acts done in its name, that here at home "slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ," I wrote:
The American psyche is not so fragile that it can't stand a bit of reflection and self-criticism.  We really aren't such a simpleminded people that we can't hold two conflicting concepts at the same time -- we can love our country and the many great things about it while recognizing its deep flaws. 
Instead, almost on cue, we had the spectacle of Rudy Giuliani, proclaiming that the President doesn't love America. 

The President's speech on Sunday commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Selma was, among many things, an eloquent retort to the Giulianis and Huckabees and Fox News pundits who have no clue about what patriotism really is.

Obama made the case that "loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America."

The President made an appeal to our exceptionalism, as James Fallows summarized, by "embracing our capacity for renewal, self-criticism, and inclusiveness."
We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”

We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.
This is a far cry from how most Republicans would describe our country.  Conservatives seem to cherish a whitewashed nostalgia for an unapologetic Ozzie and Harriet America that only existed on TV.  They remain resentful because they believe that the hippies, the Democrats and, most of all, Barack Hussein Obama took it all away.

As Paul Waldman says, no conservative would have given a speech like this.
Conservatism is about conserving, so of course the story they tell about America isn't one of constant change in order to improve the country. Their story, particularly in the last few years, is one of a kind of immaculate conception, in which the framers issued forth the nation in a state of perfection. The problems we have now can be solved if we would only revert back and be true to their vision. And the way you express that patriotism is precisely with the "stock photos or airbrushed history"—it's about praising America with the strongest voice you can muster and insisting that it is better than every other country, always has been and always will be.  
I'm all for an America that's inclusive.  But do we have to include them?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Republicans Hate America: Sabotaging Our Democracy Since 1968

Republicans used to be far more secretive in sabotaging United States foreign policy. 

 In 1968, while the Johnson Administration was attempting to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War -- an effort that would have upended Richard Nixon's presidential hopes -- Nixon ensured that the war would continue.  He dispatched emissaries to convince South Vietnam's president, Nguyen van Thieu, to refuse to cooperate in the Paris Peace talks, urging him to wait until after Nixon was elected when he would get a better deal.  It worked.  In October 1968, after the North Vietnamese appeared ready to make concessions that would allow Johnson to halt the bombing of North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese pulled out of the talks.  Nixon was elected.  The U.S. did not end its military involvement until 1973, and the war did not end until 1975.

Ronald Reagan feared the next October surprise -- an end to the Iran hostage crisis before the 1980 election-- that would have helped Jimmy Carter keep the presidency.  There is convincing evidence that the Reagan-Bush team undermined hostage negotiations by making a secret deal with Iran to not release the hostages until after Reagan's election in exchange for an agreement to sell military equipment to the regime.  This worked too.  The hostages were released immediately after Reagan's inauguration in January 1981.

And, now, Republicans seek to derail nuclear arms talks between the Obama Administration and Iran.  First, the Republican Speaker of the House invited the Prime Minister of Israel to speak before Congress about the dangers of such a deal.  Even more remarkably, as has just been reported, 47 Republican senators, including a few presidential hopefuls -- Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio -- have written an open letter to Iran, stating that any nuclear deal it signs is likely to be revoked once Obama leaves office. 
It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.
Republicans, with their underlying cynicism about governance, their willful ignorance about how the Constitution actually works, and their steadfast refusal to believe in the legitimacy of any Democratic president, are not readily distinguishable from Nixon, Reagan and their co-conspirators.  What is different is that Republicans today understand that -- given the congenital timidity of Democrats and the infuriatingly 'fair and balanced' reporting of the mainstream press -- there will be no adverse political consequences for their actions.  As a result, they are emboldened to undermine their own government in public. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Homeland Security Blanket

It is amusing to watch the Republicans' inability to govern their own lunatic ward d/b/a the House of Representatives.  House Speaker John Boehner's orange hue is starting to pale as he attempts to navigate between the nihilists in his party who welcome shutting down the government in order to make a symbolic point about Obama's immigration policies and those who have at least a tenuous grasp on reality that allow them to understand that the failure to fund the Department of Homeland Security has political perils if not national security ones.

California Senator Barbara Boxer's recent rant against Senate Republicans received a lot of attention.  She trashed them as a "national disgrace" for threatening a shutdown "of the very agency that protects the health, the safety, the lives, of the American people – the Department of Homeland Security."  She noted GOP hypocrisy in arguing for the need to go to war against terrorists while "willing to shut down the department that protects Americans here in the homeland, from a terrorist attack."  Ultimately, she blasted Republicans for pursing an agenda based on their animus towards President Obama and urged them to "grow up" and govern:  "So get over the fact that you don’t like the president. We get it. You couldn’t beat him. Too bad for you. But you’re in charge here, in the Senate. Do your job! Bring an immigration bill to the floor. Let’s let this Homeland Security Bill go. It’s a bipartisan bill. It’s funding for the most important thing we’re doing today. Let it go. Don’t hold it hostage to your hatred of this president, and I use that word because that’s what I think. That’s what I think…. Grow up. Do your job, you know? Do your job! Have respect for the office of the presidency."

This was a powerful speech and no doubt Republicans need to be scolded for their hypocrisy and their pettiness.  But what Sen. Boxer does not seem to question and what is lost in virtually all the discussions about Republican intransigence and irresponsibility is whether we really need to fund DHS in the first place.

The Department of Homeland Security is an incredibly expensive and unwieldy security blanket created by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11.  Its stated purpose is "to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks."  Having incorporated 22 agencies under its control, DHS has an annual budget of $60 billion, and has been repeatedly criticized for excessive waste and inefficiency.  In 2008, for example, a congressional subcommittee estimated DHS had wasted roughly $15 billion in failed contracts.  It also came under fire for $2 billion of waste and fraud after GAO audits uncovered misuse of government credit cards by DHS employees.

As Trevor Timm writes in the Guardian, DHS is a "behemoth and a bureaucratic nightmare" operating "under one umbrella of dysfunction and secrecy."  Timm points out a few of the myriad of concerns:
  •  DHS “fusion centers" are supposed to be terrorism prevention and response centers but are "little more than spying hubs that vacuum up information from federal and local authorities and store it for indefinite amounts of time. A scathing Senate report on the centers, which have cost the DHS at least $1.4 billion dollars, concluded that they produce 'predominantly useless information'" and "also '[run] afoul of departmental guidelines meant to guard against civil liberties' and are 'possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.'”
  • DHS dispenses millions of dollars in military gear to local police "that they can barely account for, along with high-tech spying equipment used for mass surveillance of innocent citizens."
  • DHS has its own Predator drones program "that they fly along the US border" and according to a government report it has been derided as "almost entirely ineffective and a giant waste of money" not to mention "the alarming privacy concerns of having sophisticated spying machines constantly flying over large parts of the country."
It may be beneficial politically in the short term for Democrats to gloat over Republicans apparently putting the nation at risk while they have their temper tantrum over immigration, but it might be more productive to take this as an opportunity to consider whether defunding the agency is really such a bad idea.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Evolution Of The Republican Party Or Why Democrats Need To Tune In And Turn Out


What does it mean that your typical Republican does not believe in global warming or evolution, but does believe that Christianity should be established as this country's national religion? 

According to a recent Public Policy Polling national Republican poll:
  • Only 25% of Republicans believe in global warming (another 10% are not sure) and 66% do not believe that global warming exists.
  • A plurality of Republicans, 49%, do not believe in evolution (13% are unsure) and only 37% believe in the theory of evolution. 
  • 57% of Republicans would support establishing Christianity as our "national religion" (with another 13% unsure), while only 30% oppose it.
(And, according to another recent poll, only 11% of Republicans believe that Obama loves America, a vast majority agreeing with Rudy Giuliani's ridiculous but insidious attack on the President.)

Are we doomed as a democracy, as a nation, when the majority of one of our two political parties has no faith in science or, apparently, in the Constitution (except for the Second Amendment); when that majority is not only more likely to believe in the Biblical prophesy of End Times than man-made climate change but wants to ensure that we all believe likewise?

With less than 60% of eligible voters turning out for the last presidential election, and barely a third voting in the last mid-term election, the key is making sure the rational half of the electorate tunes in and turns out.  

This is admittedly made more difficult in our post-Citizens United world where reasonable voices are drowned out by unlimited corporate spending.  It is also made more difficult because the mainstream media normalizes inane Republican positions on everything from national security and the environment to economics and civil rights by relentlessly seeking an illusory middle ground no matter how off the rails the right wing veers.  As the great Charles Pierce puts it, "the consistent inability to recognize the modern Republican party for the bag of nuts it has become is a true phenomenon in American journalism."

What is critical is for Democrats to rally around a cohesive and comprehensive message of economic inequality, wage stagnation and the decline of the middle class. 

A helpful template has just been provided by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Elijah Cummings, who announced in an USA Today op-ed the launching of a "Middle Class Prosperity Project," which will examine how the nation's economic system has been "rigged against the middle class over the past several decades" and promote "policies to ensure that the best days of America's middle class are still ahead."

Such an approach should not only energize Democratic voters but might even appeal to the narrow swath Republicans who are able to find a foothold in reality. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Giuliani's World: A Noun, A Verb and A Crazy GOP Talking Point

Rudy Giuliani is a mean-spirited hack who long ago gave up any right to appear in polite society, much less be the driver of a news cycle.  But there he was, speaking at a fundraiser for a fellow traveler, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, accusing the President of the United States of not loving America:
I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America.  He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.
Our man Rudy later defended himself against charges of racism by doubling down:  "Some people thought it was racist — I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools, and most of this he learned from white people.”  Thanks, Rudy, for clearing that up.  As Laura Clawson at Daily Kos put it, "turning to completely racially based logic is about the least convincing possible way to rebut charges of racism."

Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen appropriately tweeted:  "Rudy Giuliani questioned how much, or even if, President Obama loves America. Maybe he thinks he loves it 3/5 as much as Giuliani & his pals."

The best take down was from Wayne Barrett who, having written a biography of the man, came well equipped, with a Daily News editorial, "What Rudy Giuliani Knows About Love."  After a few unsavory details about Rudy's love life which call into question what Rudy even means by the word "love," Barrett notes that "Rudy may have forgotten the half-dozen deferments he won ducking the Vietnam War, even getting the federal judge he was clerking for to write a letter creating a special exemption for him." 

But before Rudy slithers back under his rock, there are a couple of points worth thinking about.  First, how is it that these odious right wing lunatics get such a disproportionate amount of air time?  Rudy spews and all of a sudden every cable news channel convenes a panel to discuss whether Obama really is a patriot, and the White House as well as the current cast of clowns who hope to replace Obama is asked to comment.   If the media has such a leftward bias, how is it that the right controls the narrative? 

Of perhaps greater concern is that as long as Giuliani and his fire-breathing compatriots on the far right continue to say outrageous things about the President and his policies, they provide what appears on the surface to be a stark contrast with the more civil GOP candidates.  We can already see this dynamic with the way Jeb  ("I am my own man") Bush is being portrayed as a moderate.

So, while it is easy to rebut the unhinged idiocy of Giuliani and Jindal and Carson and Huckabee and Cruz and Paul, it is important to realize that when you pare away the polish and sound bites of the likes of Bush and Christie and Walker, they are fundamentally indistinguishable.     

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hope Springs Eternal

As I wrote last year in Zen and the Misery of Being a Met Fan, since their heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 2006 playoffs, the Mets have experienced historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves, an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, and most insidious, ownership's entanglement with Bernie Madoff, which has caused a shrinking payroll and the inability or unwillingness to make key moves to make the team watchable, much less competitive.  So, for the last several seasons, that familiar feeling comprising equal measure of hopelessness and disgust starts gnawing at me by around the All Star Break, and as the season winds down I become completely disgusted.  Nevertheless, because I am a Met fan, I endure this agony and misery, still hoping for a miracle.  (See The Seven Stages of Being A Met Fan)  And, there have been a couple of miracles, although not since Mookie Wilson's grounder dribbled through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986.

I could dwell on the fact that ownership's goal -- particularly given their financial constraints -- seems to be making the team just a little better than mediocre to keep the fan base from rebelling completely.  I could dwell on the fact that the Mets have an awful manager who is more likely to undermine promising young players than inspire them.  I could dwell on the fact that rather than fill key holes such as shortstop, a lefty reliever and a power-hitting outfielder, the Mets biggest acquisition over the winter was signing a recently-injured 36-year-old Michael Cuddyer, whose primary claim to fame is that he is David Wright's best friend. 

But it is spring training!  A time of renewal and rebirth; a time when even the lowliest team has hope for the season ahead.  Players coming off injury-plagued seasons are returning in the best shape of their careers.  Hitters have corrected the flaws in their swing and pitchers have discovered devastating new pitches.  And, as we say every year at this time, if "everything goes right" we could have a pretty good squad this year -- maybe even make the playoffs.

Indeed, Matt Harvey, who emerged two seasons ago as one of the most dynamic players and one of the very best pitchers in baseball before blowing out his elbow, is back and seemingly healthy.  He will join an exciting young pitching staff which boasts last year's Rookie of the Year Jake DeGrom, fellow phenom Zack Wheeler, and even more great young arms.with more arms-in-waiting in the minors.  If David Wright and Curtis Granderson bounce back, if Lucas Duda, Travis d'Arnaud and Juan Lagares continue to improve (or at least don't digress), if Wilmer Flores hits the way scouts say he can and is able to play even a minimally-adequate shortstop, the Mets might actually be fun to watch.

And if everything goes right .... 

Friday, February 13, 2015

California's Death Penalty, Like Pennsylvania's, Is "Ineffective, Unjust And Expensive" (Only Moreso)

Governor Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania pending review of a task force report, stating that capital punishment “has been proven to be ineffective, unjust, and expensive."  Pennsylvania has 186 inmates on death row, and has executed three men since the death penalty was reinstated.  Former federal judge Timothy K. Lewis, who consulted with the Governor regarding the power to impose a moratorium stated that "at a minimum, we must take a step back to examine the effectiveness of a system fraught with racial disparity, constant reversals, and the infinite warehousing of prisoners who await a punishment that hasn't been imposed in our State in 15 years."

California has strikingly similar problems but on a far larger scale. Death sentences are more likely to be imposed not based on the severity of the crime but on race, county and the effectiveness of defense counsel. Approximately 750 men and women languish on death row for decades, costing taxpayers billions of dollars. There have been 13 executions since the reinstatement of our death penalty in 1977, and none since 2006. 

One difference from Pennsylvania is that California's scheme has been extensively studied and its dysfunction conclusively established.  In 2008, the bipartisan California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) issued its report which found California's death penalty is “plagued with excessive delay.” According to CCFAJ's report, the lapse of time from sentence of death to execution constitutes the longest delay of any death penalty state and “most California death sentences are actually sentences of lifetime incarceration.  The defendant will die in prison before he or she is ever executed.”  At bottom there are just too many cases and not enough qualified lawyers to handle them.

Those findings were made seven years ago and the problems have only worsened.  More recently, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney held in one capital case that the administration of California's death penalty is irrevocably dysfunctional, resulting in systemic delays in which only the "random few" are executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  (This ruling is currently under appeal.)  Of the over 900 people that have been sentenced to death, 13 have been executed, 94 have died of other causes.  The process for reviewing their death sentences takes an average of 25 years and is getting longer -- delays, as the court found, that are inherent in the system and not the fault of inmates themselves.

In 2011, an extensive study headed Judge Arthur Alarcon determined that California's death penalty system has cost taxpayers roughly $4 billion "to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system."  But despite these vast expenditures, the current Chief Justice of the State of California
Tani Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged, the death penalty is not effective and fixing its problems would require "structural changes" that the State cannot afford.

Governor Wolf joins the governors of Washington, Oregon and Colorado who, recognizing the inherent flaws in their capital punishment systems, have issued moratoriums in recent years.  Eighteen other states have abolished the death penalty outright.  It is well past time that California follows suit and replaces the death penalty with a more effective, just, less costly -- and more humane -- system.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Obama's Crusade, High Horses And American Exceptionalism

The reaction to President Obama's observation that we shouldn't condemn an entire religion, in this case Islam, because of the barbaric acts done in its name is another reminder of how difficult it is to have a serious conversation about issues that have the potential to undermine our unwavering belief in American exceptionalism.

Obama stated a fairly obvious truth:  "Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

The overheated response from the right, from Christian groups, and even from some mainstream pundits for what Ta-Nehisi Coates described "as relatively mild, and correct, point" should not have come as a surprise.  We don't really like to think about those burning crosses do we?  We don't like to think about slavery or Jim Crow or the institutional racism that continues to have a profound impact on our society.

We don't like to think about the decimation of the native population that succumbed to our Manifest Destiny.  We don't like to think about the internment of Americans of Japanese heritage or the deployment of not one, but two atomic bombs.  We don't like to think about the many popularly-elected governments we have overthrown in the name of freedom.  We don't like to think about our use of torture (we don't even like to use the word, preferring 'enhanced interrogation').

There have been critical moments in our country's history where it was imperative to face up to some of our more malevolent deeds, confront hard truths, point out where we have strayed from what America is supposed to stand for and deal honestly with the fall out.  All too often, we have punted. 

When Richard Nixon resigned, his successor Gerald Ford declared that "our long national nightmare is over."  A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, apparently deciding that the nightmare was not over.  Ford did not wish to "prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed" and exercised his power "to firmly shut and seal this book."  And so, for the sake of less fitful sleep, we were denied a true reckoning of the many abuses of power committed by the Nixon Administration, all but guaranteeing that future high government officials would feel similarly unconstrained.  (See, e.g., Iran Contra Affair)

Say what you will about the inefficacy of Jimmy Carter's presidency but he did try to get us to be a bit more reflective.  His derisively (and inaccurately) dubbed "Malaise Speech" in July 1979, describing a "crisis of confidence" in America's future, was supposed to be a wake up call for the nation to pull together to ease the energy crisis.  Carter acknowledged the loss of faith in government stemming from "the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.," "the agony of Vietnam," and the "shock of Watergate."  He conceded that "these wounds are still very deep" and "have never been healed." Carter's idea was to reinvigorate Americans through our joint efforts at energy conservation and innovation:  "the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.

Americans soon opted instead for Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" and the promised end to our national nightmares.  Reagan disavowed Carter's pessimistic soul-searching for a rosy view of America as a "shining city on the hill."  The cure for Carter's "crisis of confidence" was  an invasion of the little island of Grenada to restore our military glory.  Reagan cloaked our unsavory policies in patriotic rhetoric.  The "contras" we armed and trained to overthrow the Nicaraguan government were "freedom fighters," "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers."  In Reagan's America there were no hungry children, ketchup was a vegetable and welfare queens drove Cadillacs. 

Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, gave the keynote address at the 1984 Republican National Convention, where she portrayed Democrats who criticized U.S. policy as disloyal, repeating the mantra, "they always blame America first." She closed by saying:  "The American people know that it's dangerous to blame ourselves for terrible problems that we did not cause . . . With the election of Ronald Reagan, the American people declared to the world that we have the necessary energy and to defend ourselves, and that we have as well a deep commitment to peace. And now, the American people, proud of our country, proud of our freedom, proud of ourselves, will reject the San Francisco Democrats and send Ronald Reagan back to the White House."

We did send Reagan back to the White House, and more than 30 years later, the same dynamic remains.  True patriots  are "proud of our country, proud of our freedom, proud of ourselves."  Then there is the pessimistic "Blame America First" crowd whose relentless questioning of the underpinnings of America's mythic greatness is a threat to that very greatness.

So when President Obama, referring to slavery, acknowledged that "the United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history" or suggested we may have "a moral responsibility to act" on arms control because only the U.S. had "used a nuclear weapon," he was hammered for apologizing for America.  When, after Trayvon Martin's murder, Obama explained that the "African American community is looking at this issue through  a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," he was accused of fomenting racial divisions.  And, most recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he tried to provide some badly needed perspective on religious extremism, his remarks were characterized, for example, by former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore as "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime" and by Catholic League President Bill Donohue as "insulting" and "pernicious."

The American psyche is not so fragile that it can't stand a bit of reflection and self-criticism.  We really aren't such a simpleminded people that we can't hold two conflicting concepts at the same time -- we can love our country and the many great things about it while recognizing its deep flaws.  It is therefore far past time to rid ourselves of Reagan's literal and figurative amnesia about America, to get off that high horse, and engage in meaningful conversations that raise troubling questions about our history and what it means for the future. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Shame of U.S. Journalism Is The Destruction of Iraq, Not Fake Helicopter Stories


By Christian Christensen

The news that NBC’s Brian Williams was not, in fact, on a helicopter in 2003 that came under fire from an Iraqi Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) should come as a surprise to noone. Williams had repeated the lie on several occasions over the course of a decade until a veteran, who was on the actual helicopter that was attacked, had enough of Williams’ war porn and called the TV host out on Facebook. In a quite pathetic effort to cover his tracks, the anchor—who makes in excess of $10 million per year— claimed that his fairy tale was, in fact, "a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women" who had served in Iraq. Twelve years, it seems, is enough time for Williams to confuse being on a helicopter that came under fire from an RPG with being on a helicopter that did not.
 
Given that Williams works for NBC, his participation in the construction of a piece of fiction during the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is apt. US network news, together with outlets such as CNN, aggressively cheer-led an invasion predicated on a massive falsehood: the Iraqi possession of WMD. What is jarring, however, is the fact that Williams’ sad attempt to inject himself into the fabric of the violence is getting more ink and airplay than the non-existence of WMD did back in the early-to-mid 2000s: a lie that provided the justification for a military action that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
 
From embedded journalists to ultra-militaristic news logos and music, U.S. television news media were more than willing to throw gas on the invasion fire. "Experts" in the studio were invariably ex-generals looking to pad their pensions, while anti-war activists (who spoke for sizable portions of the US and UK populations back in 2003) were avoided like the plague. After all, what news organization wants to be tarred with the “peace” brush when flag-waiving jingoism sells so incredibly well? The one-sidedness of coverage, particularly in the US, bordered on the morally criminal.
 
Despite some limited soul-searching by journalists a decade after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq about the abject failure of the U.S. news to engage, in a truly critical fashion, with the falsehoods peddled by the Bush administration, the current focus on an inane untruth told by one celebrity news anchor has overshadowed the bigger picture about the US media and Iraq. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
 
In the post-9/11, pre-invasion period, U.S. citizens proved to be spectacularly misinformed about the 9/11 attacks, Iraq, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and WMD. When the invasion began, many in the U.S. simply had no clue about what was going on. Was that all the fault of the US media? No, but it’s fair to say a pretty large chunk of the responsibility lay at their feet. Then, once the bombing and street fighting became banal and lost its attractiveness to audiences and advertisers, most U.S. media outlets simply abandoned an Iraq left to fend for itself in a vortex of violence, political instability and corruption. And, who wants to talk about that when you can write about Williams upping his War Zone Reporter street cred? But, if you do want to hear about violence in Iraq, you can rely on Fox News to suggest that this particular hell might also be a liberal conspiracy…
 
The number of Iraqi citizens who have died as a direct and indirect by-product of the U.S. invasion is enough to populate a mid-sized U.S. city, and thousands continue to die on a monthly basis in non-imaginary attacks.
 
Yet, here we are, over a decade later, still discussing celebrity fantasies. That isn’t just bad journalism, it’s an affront to all who lost their lives in a brutal and bloody deception. Williams is just sorry about the wrong thing.
 
Originally posted at Common Dreams.  Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

Monday, January 19, 2015

Proud To Be Maladjusted

Originally posted on January 17, 2011

Mountain Top by Romare Bearden
Over the weekend, I grabbed from my bookshelf A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and literally dusted it off.  I flipped through it looking for something profound with which to pay tribute to the day.  There was so much eloquence to choose from, so many familiar, but nevertheless timeless speeches and essays defending the morality of non-violence and demanding racial justice, social justice and human rights. As I leafed through the book, I kept returning -- as Dr. King did -- to the theme of embracing "maladjustment;" refusing to be comfortable in an unjust world and insisting on action to achieve a better one.

In the summer of 1957, King addressed students at UC Berkeley, where he spoke of being maladjusted:
Now we all should seek to live a well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.  But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted.  I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination.  I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule.  I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism.  I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. . . . God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change the world and our civilization.  And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.
Dr. King reiterated this theme in 1958, in an article he wrote for a Christian publication.  The article criticizes churches for failing to be more vocal in denouncing racism.  He stated "it may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the flaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people . . . .  What we need is a restless determination to make the ideal of brotherhood a reality in this nation and all over the world."  King then reprised the notion of being maladjusted, almost verbatim from the speech he gave in Berkeley.

And then, in 1961, Martin Luther King gave the commencement address at Lincoln University, in which he talked about "The American Dream," "a dream where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers."  (I'm sure he meant sisters too.)  King urged the students to "not be detached spectators, but involved participants, in this great drama that is taking place in our nation and around the world."  He concluded this remarkable speech with many of the same words on being maladjusted that he used earlier: 
Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature, and modern psychology has a word that is used, probably more than any other.  It is the word maladjusted.  This word is the ringing cry of modern child psychology.  Certainly all of us want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic personality.  But I say to you, there are certain things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted.

If you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let me say to you that I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination.  I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry.  I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.  I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.  And I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.

So let us be maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across centuries, "Let justice run down like waters and righteousness like a might stream."  Let us be as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free.  Let us be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could look into the eyes of the men and women of his generation and cry out, "Love your enemies.  Blequss them that curse you.  Pray for them that despitefully use you."

I believe that it is through such maladjustment that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.  That will be the day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God almighty, we are free at last."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Back Story: Mike Piazza Is Again Snubbed By Baseball Hall Of Fame Voters

Mike Piazza, a 12-time All Star and a true superstar, is not in the Hall of Fame because of a case of back acne.  Seriously.  Sluggers during the Steroid Era are presumptively suspect of using "performance enhancing drugs" and it takes little more for voters to disqualify them from Hall of Fame consideration.  (Read my rant against those sanctimonious voters who have taken it upon themselves to be the conscience of the National Pastime here.) In Piazza's case it was back acne. 

After Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza was the greatest player the Mets ever had.  Before his Met days, he was already a 5-time All Star with the Dodgers.  He was traded by the Dodgers to the Marlins and played for them for about a week before the Mets got him in May of 1998.  It was one of the few times in Mets history that ownership did something that was both big and smart -- the kind of move to give a resurgent team a chance at winning it all.

It almost worked. 

The Mets in Piazza's first year missed the playoffs by one game (after losing the last 5 games of the season).  In 1999, they lost a brutal playoff to the Braves, when Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run.  And in 2000, they actually made it to the World Series but lost to the Yankees in 5 games. And, sadly, that was it.  In Piazza's final five seasons the team was mediocre at best finishing third twice, fourth once and fifth twice.

But the Mets' regression to the mean cannot be blamed on Piazza.  In his 8 years with the Mets, he was a remarkable presence in the middle of the lineup, hitting 220 home runs, knocking in 665 runs and batting .296.  And the stats can't possibly measure his star power -- the kind of electricity that he brought with him every time he stepped to the plate.  (So electric that Roger Clemens was compelled to heave a piece of a broken bat at him during the 2000 World Series.)  Piazza had a flair for the dramatic, and most notable was the inspirational game-winning home run he hit on 9/21/11, the first game after the 9/11 attacks.

Piazza's career offensive numbers are staggering.  He batted.300 in nine consecutive seasons (1991-2001) and leads all catchers in career home runs with 427.  He boasts a .308 career batting average, 1335 RBI, 2127  hits, 344 doubles and 1048 runs scored.  These would be remarkable numbers for any player but for a catcher who has to crouch behind the plate for nine innings, and get beat up and worn down by foul tips, hard slides and other aches and pains like no other position player, it is unfathomable.

Mike Piazza is surely the greatest hitting catcher ever.  Other than his dermatological issues, the other mark against him is his middling skill behind the plate.  Admittedly, it was sometimes painful to watch Piazza try to throw out runners or block balls in the dirt.  On the other hand, it has been said that he was an excellent handler of pitchers, a skill less observable by the causal fan. 

In a profile in the Wall Street Journal, Piazza was asked where he would rank himself on the list of all time great catchers, and he replied, "in the top five"
I'm a humble person, but I'd definitely put myself in the top five. I'd say Johnny [Bench] first for his charisma and talent—then I'd say Roy Campanella—he won three MVPs, after all. And Yogi Berra. If I put myself over Yogi, people would say, 'Who does he think he is, he put himself over Yogi?'
Great question, and I don't think Piazza's answer is too far off.  He may not be in the top five, but he is pretty close.

Piazza ignores a trio of legendary catchers from the 1920s and 1930s, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Gabby Hartnett, as well as the two Pudges:  Carlton "Pudge" Fisk and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez.  Then there's Gary Carter, another Met, who I wrote about here

With the exception of Rodriguez, who is not yet eligible, all these catchers are in the Hall of Fame, and Piazza fits quite comfortably within this group.  Bench, Berra, Cochrane are generally considered the top three.  Campanella is next.  The fifth slot has got to go to Rodriguez, who may rate even higher.  Then, probably, comes Piazza.  While he didn't have defensive skills anywhere close to Hartnett, Dickey, Carter or Fisk, Piazza's far superior hitting arguably more than compensates for his lesser fielding prowess. 

But wherever you put him on the top ten list, Mike Piazza is indisputably one of the greatest catchers of all time.  His absence from the Hall of Fame based on rank speculation of steroid use is a travesty and at odds with the Hall of Fame's avowed goals of "preserving history and honoring excellence."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Baseball Hall of Fame Voting: Focus On Substance Over Substances

“Voting shall be based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, their contributions to the team on which the player played.” -- BWAA's Hall of Fame Rules
Racists and segregationists who conspired to keep African Americans out of baseball are in the Hall of Fame.  So are players who regularly used amphetamines to "enhance" their performance on the field and others who took illegal drugs off the field.  Cheaters are in the Hall, from spitballers to sign stealers.  The Hall includes adulterers, sexual assaulters, drunks and batterers.  But some of the greatest players of the past couple of decades, including some of the greatest in the game's history, are denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame because they allegedly used steroids, probably used steroids or simply looked like they used steroids.  (Meanwhile, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, managers whose star players used steroids, were voted into the Hall easily.)

This wholly arbitrary application of the so-called "integrity clause" argues for its elimination as a factor altogether.  This would help dampen the sanctimony of the current group of Hall of Fame voters and their misguided effort to prop up an idealized, idyllic view of the National Pastime that never was.  As S.F. sports columnist Ray Ratto put it:  The Hall of Fame is not a church; it is history, for good and for ill.
 
It is unquestionable that steroids were used by a large group of players --  hitters and pitchers -- from about 1995 until 2005, when the baseball establishment, under pressure, finally began to crack down on the use of performance enhancing drugs.  During this time, when offensive numbers (and players’ heads) were suspiciously inflated, the fans cheered and the owners gleefully looked the other way.  For better or worse, steroids were part of the game and unless we are going to disqualify everyone who played during these years, we simply have to accept it.  Moreover, with the exception of the few players who have admitted steroid use or where the evidence appears overwhelming, we have no way of knowing with any hope of accuracy who juiced and who didn’t.

I wish baseball writers who vote for Hall of Fame induction would stop using their votes to impose their idiosyncratic view of morality on the game.  In the absence of any guidelines from the Hall on how to apply the integrity clause, voters should simply ignore it and focus on the players' performances on the field.  Determining who deserves enshrinement is tricky enough without adding a whole other layer of subjectivity.

In my view, the best and most dominant players of every era should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and steroid use or other alleged character flaws should not be insurmountable barriers to entry.  Without Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mike Piazza -- who is apparently suspect based on little more than a case of back acne -- the Hall of Fame's avowed goals of "preserving history and honoring excellence" will be greatly diminished.

For what it's worth, my vote for the 2015 Hall of Fame class (without regard to real or imagined steroid use) would easily include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and first timers Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, all of whom are among the best at their respective positions in the game's history.  I would also vote without hesitation for Tim Raines, the greatest leadoff hitter east of Rickey Henderson.  Craig Biggio and his 3000 hits over an excellent 20-year career would also get my vote, as would his long-time teammate, Jeff Bagwell, a bit of a closer call.  John Smoltz, a truly dominant pitcher in his own right and part of an incredible Braves rotation (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were elected last year) should also get in.  With my tenth hypothetical vote, I would probably choose Alan Trammell, a shortstop whose career compares favorably to recent inductee Barry Larkin and future inductee Derek Jeter. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Leonard I. Beerman: Larger Than Life

“There are those who rise even higher, uniting themselves with the whole of existence, with all creatures, all worlds. It is of such that the tradition has said that whosoever sings a portion of this universal song each day is assured a life in the world to come.”
-- Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman

Of the few larger-than-life figures I have been fortunate to know, none may loom larger than Leonard Beerman, who passed away today at the age of 93.  Our paths crossed at Death Penalty Focus, where we served on the Board of Directors together for many years.  But while the death penalty has been my singular focus for social justice work, it was just one of many for Leonard.

A pacifist, Leonard nevertheless served in the Marines during World War II (although he didn't see combat) and then in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group, prior to the founding of Israel.  He described this latter experience and its impact on him in a recent profile in the Los Angeles Times:
Thankfully, my group never really got into violent confrontations.  [But] what if I had encountered someone? I would have been a part of the violence, would have done it out of fear that engulfed me in that moment, out of concern to support my comrades. And I would have lost all sense of the moral implications of what I was doing. . . . Luckily, I was spared.  And when I came back, the experience had cemented my views. I became a pacifist because of what I had seen: People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live.
Leonard was the founding rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles in 1949, and although he retired in 1986, he continued to return to the bimah to deliver a passionate Yom Kippur sermon every year.  In what would prove to be his last one this year, he questioned the tepid Jewish American response to Israel's actions in Gaza:  "Another Yom Kippur.  Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives . . . [and] hardly a word found its way out of a Jewish mouth to express the slightest concern about the way Israel was exercising its right to defend itself, the appalling human suffering."

This was vintage Beerman.  For decades Leonard has fearlessly challenged not just his congregation, but all of us to question our biases, to struggle against injustice and repression, and to pursue peace.  He was one of the first rabbis to speak out against the Vietnam War.  He invited Daniel Ellsberg to the temple while Ellsberg was awaiting trial.  Cesar Chavez was another invited guest.

Civil rights, racial equality, nuclear disarmament, workers' rights, a two-state solution for Israel, and the end to the death penalty.  Leonard tirelessly took on these issues and more with deep wisdom, humility, passion and eloquence. 

With Leonard Beerman's inspiration, now it is our turn.  May his memory be a blessing to us all.