Sunday, February 19, 2017

This Is Not Fake News, The President Really Did This, And It's Outrageous

This is NOT fake news, it really happened, and it is appalling. The President has signed several acts into law. One of them, recognizing that immigrant citizens more often vote for the opposition party, makes it much more difficult to become naturalized. Another, aimed at the potential danger posed by immigrants, gives the President sweeping power to incarcerate or deport any non-citizen that the President deems "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States". The last and most alarming one curtails the rights of American citizens by prohibiting assembly "of the people with any intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States" and making it a crime to "write, print, utter, or publish" any "false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States". That last law, which makes criticizing the government a crime punishable by fines and jail time, was written to be used against the press, which the President has declared to be the "enemy of the American people".

This is not fake news, it is real. Real history. The president who signed these laws was John Adams, and this actually happened in 1798. But the parallels to today are both frightening and instructive. The Federalists (the conservative party of their day, lead by Hamilton) were in control of Congress, and the Democratic-Republicans (the party of Jefferson and later Jackson) were on the outs. Adams was despised by Jefferson's party, and had an uneasy relationship with his own party from whom he was independent and considered a bit unpredictable. Newspapers were highly politicized, with right-wing news and left-wing news furiously putting their spin on events, and there was a fair amount of "fake news" flying around. Politicians considered newspapers to be patriots or traitors, depending on which politician and which newspaper. The Federalists were pushing for war with France, seeing the French Revolution as a sheer terror, while the Democratic-Republicans saw the French Revolution as the people rightfully rising up to overthrow a tyrannical aristocracy and monarchy. There was a great fear of immigrants from France in America, and the influence they could have on our own young country. It was in this context that the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts came into being. Under the Sedition Act, a number of prominent left-wing publishers and even one Congressman were fined and jailed. (Alas, the notion of going to court to challenge the constitutionality of a law hadn't yet been invented.)

The Sedition Act had a sunset clause and was allowed to expire in 1800. However, in the fever pitch of World War I, another Sedition Act was made law in 1918, making it a crime to use any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the US Government, its flag, or its armed forces. The act was used against a number of party leaders and labor leaders before it was repealed in 1920. One piece of the 1798 legislation, the Alien Enemies Act, still remains on the books today. This was used as the basis of authority for the notorious Executive Order 9066 in 1942, ordering the internment of Japanese-American citizens. (That happened 75 years ago today.)

The original Alien and Sedition Acts and their subsequent reincarnations are generally considered shameful black marks in our history, overreactions to fear. It should be clear to any good student of history that we are on this same path yet again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Keeping Terrorism In Perspective


It is our human nature to be poor judges of relative risk. Something in our instinct gives way too much signficance to rare extraordinary events. We have all met people who are afraid of air travel, terrified at the prospect of a plane crash. This is a sympathetic but completely irrational fear. The odds of dying in a plane crash are vanishingly small. In 2013, 3 billion passengers flew in planes and 210 people died in plane crashes. Fewer people die in plane crashes than are struck by lightning. In contrast, over a million people died in motor vehicle accidents. And ironically, nearly all of those afraid of flying don't think twice about getting into a car. It is a quirk of our brains that our "gut reaction" to the relative danger of flying versus driving is wildly out of proportion. The same is true for our gut reaction to terrorism. Since 9/11, terrorism has claimed the lives of an average of 18 Americans per year. While each and every death is regretable, when making public policy, it is imperative to keep things in proper perspective. Death by terrorist attack is significantly less likely than being killed by lightning strike, and as has been wryly observed, more Americans are killed by toddlers with firearms than are killed by terrorists. While we need to take the threat of terrorism seriously, we also need to avoid the trap of being overtaken by fear. Indeed, stoking our fear is the goal of terrorists, and ultimately their most powerful weapon. If the terrorists inspire us to incur undue costs, burdens, and limitations, then they will have won.


I am not advocating that we abandon counterterrorism measures altogether. But I do advocate two things: First, let's take a deep breath and keep terrorism in perspective, and second, when we do address terrorism, let us assess the effectiveness and the cost/benefit of the measures we take. For keeping proper perspective, we should keep in front of us the relative risk of what we are addressing. Consider: 18 Americans die per year on average due to terrorism, while 990 Americans were shot by police officers in 2015. About 1100 Americans die from extreme heat or cold each year, over 11,000 Americans were killed by firearms (not counting suicides, which add about twice as many more), 147,000 Americans died of chronic lower respiratory disease (mostly tobacco-related), an estimated 250,000 Americans died from medical errors, and over 600,000 Americans died of heart disease. While mortality is not the only dimension that should be considered, these proportions are worth keeping in mind when we make policy decisions about how much money our nation should spend addressing each problem.

We need to be asking questions such as "is it worthwhile to spend $1.2 billion per year to operate body scanners at airports?" A 2011 assessment of risks, benefits, and costs of homeland security measures published in the journal Homeland Security Affairs argued that "a great deal of money appears to have been misspent and would have been far more productive—saved far more lives—if it had been expended in other ways." What's worse, they note that some counterterrorism measures may actually claim more lives than they save: "Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year." Fifteen years after 9/11, we need to take a hard look at risks, costs, and benefits.

When we do decide to invest in counterterrorism measures, it is important that we look to the data to guide rational decisions about which measures to take. At the moment, focus on radical Islam is sucking up all the oxygen in the room. But is that even the right focus? In the 15 years since 9/11, America has suffered 277 killings from 120 extremist events. The majority of those deaths (158 / 57%) and events (89 / 74%) were perpetrated not by Islamist extremists, but by far right extremists, like the Charleston church massacre, the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, and the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting. Why doesn't the White House give us a list of those events? Even if we think that jihadist terrorism deserves special importance, why scapegoat immigrants? If we look at all of those who committed domestic jihadist terrorist acts since 9/11, the vast majority (84%) were US citizens or permanent residents, with the majority of them being native born citizens. And if you look at those who actually committed deadly attacks, they were entirely US citizens or permanent residents, not a single refugee among them. Even if you look to the countries where these terrorists' parents came from, you don't find the "usual suspects". As has been widely noted, not a single deadly attacker since 9/11 has come (or even had their parents come) from any of the seven countries targeted by the recent executive order. Looking at the data, it's hard not to conclude that the executive order is utterly misguided pandering to fear. What's worse is that the scapegoating of immigrant communities will actually hinder our ability to prevent attacks in the future. The most successful prevention of jihadist attacks has proceeded from intelligence provided by informants in ethnic communities who share the language and the culture and are in the best position to provide valuable information. If we continue on a path of baseless demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, we will alienate the trust and good will of the people we need most to help keep us safe.

As a school boy I first learned the famous FDR saying "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", but it is only in the past year that I have truly come to appreciate what he meant. Our nation is at a crucial juncture where we must decide whether we will be a nation of facts or a nation of fear. Our finest leaders have always been the ones who have appealed to our highest ideals, not those who appeal to our basest instincts. Osama bin Laden's goal with the 9/11 attacks was to inspire such fear in the American people that we would bankrupt ourselves in expensive and productivity-choking extraordinary measures, and that fear would drive us to surrender our freedoms for "security", and to abandon our prosperity by retreating behind walls. After 15 years and bin Laden's death, for the first time I worry that he may yet succeed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Action Report: Stop Trump's #SwampCabinet Rally

Over 200 people turned out at noon today for a "Stop the #SwampCabinet" rally in front of Senator Feinstein's West LA office. It was encouraging to see such a good turnout in the middle of a weekday. The crowd and its signs were very visible on the busy corner of Sepulveda and Santa Monica Blvd, and many cars honked their horns in support as they passed. News cameras were there and they interviewed a few people. The theme of the rally was opposition to Trump's cabinet nominees, an unprecedented parade of unqualified, extreme, conflict-of-interest ridden, big-money donor, all-white, mostly-male billionaires. This is not draining the swamp, as Trump promised, nor championing the working people. In addition to the prevalent official "Stop Trump's #SwampCabinet" signs, there were a great array of handmade signs for the occasion, as well as a Trump piƱata. (Among my favorite signs: "Betsy DeVos is more dangerous for our children than grizzly bears" and "I (heart) facts".) The organizers collected signatures, as well as letters to the senator that many had brought, and were going to bring them to a 1pm meeting with the Senator's staff. While we were at the rally, we got the word that Senator Feinstein had requested a one week delay in the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, which was scheduled for today. In her remarks requesting the postponement, she talked about the impression that the Women's March had made on her. Let's keep that feeling up, and give her the courage to vote NO to this #SwampCabinet! (See photos from the rally.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

ACA: The Dog Caught The Car

Like a dog chasing a car, the GOP has been barking about repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or "ObamaCare") for years, but now that the dog has caught the car, the Republicans have no idea what to do. They don't know how to repeal the ACA, and moreover, they don't even really know why they want to repeal the ACA. Do they want to go back to allowing insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions? Or do they want to go back to allowing insurance companies to have lifetime caps? ("Sorry you need that life-saving medicine, but you've hit a lifetime cap so we're not going to pay for it anymore.") Maybe it's the part about allowing parents to cover their children up to age 26 that they want to eliminate? Or maybe they want to go back to the Medicare "donut hole", so that seniors might be on the hook for thousands of dollars in medication costs? Do they hate that more than 20 million people who previously couldn't obtain insurance now have coverage? Or that states are saving hundreds of millions of dollars in uncompensated care because fewer uninsured people are using emergency rooms as last resorts? Maybe they don't like the primary care coverage, which helps reduce costs in the long run? Or maybe they don't like the mental health and substance abuse treatment coverage, that allows people to get into rehab programs rather than just showing up at the hospital when they overdose. (And note to the smug morally superior folks who might think substance abuse is a problem for "those other people": google "opioid epidemic".) Pretty much every feature of ObamaCare is popular when people are surveyed about it. When it comes down to it, the only thing people truly hate about ObamaCare is the name. Here's a pro tip for members of Congress: Americans don't really hate ObamaCare, what they really hate is disruption in their health care. If over 20 million people lose their insurance because the ACA is repealed, and if millions more lose benefits they currently have from the ACA, those people are going to blame this Congress. You break it, you own it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Highlights of President Trump's Inaugural Address (Annotated)


  • "The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world" (by my Treasury nominee)
  • "Americans want great schools for their children" (but my Sec Education nominee will dismantle them)
  • "Every decision ... will be made to benefit American workers and American families" (as my Sec Labor nominee takes away worker protections)
  • "there is no room for prejudice" (so my Attorney General will make sure that minorities access to vote is unprotected)
  • "We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world" (well Russia anyway; China, Europe, and others not so much)
  • "Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength" (because tariffs worked out so well in the 1930s)
  • "our government is controlled by the people" (by a minority of people in carefully gerrymandered districts)
  • "And now we are looking only to the future" (but willfully ignoring the environmental cataclism predicted by our scientists)
  • "Every decision on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and families" (but my Sec State will focus on benefit to Exxon)
  • "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow" (like coal, Arctic oil)
  • "there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land" (so my 1st act: raise mortgage costs for struggling families)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Action Report: Congressman Schiff Forum on ACA

Congressman Adam Schiff (CA-28) held a forum on the Affordable Care Act at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. The auditorium held a couple hundred people, but it was packed and they had to use an overflow room. Schiff headed a panel that also included leaders from Healthcare Access California, Planned Parenthood, and the LGBT Center. Several people shared their stories of how the ACA has benefitted them. Many moving stories about the barbaric pre-ACA days of pre-existing conditions and lifetime limits. One person talked about losing their job and their coverage at age 60, just a few years shy of Medicare eligibility, and trying to find coverage on the independent market before ACA. "When you're 60 years old, you are a pre-existing condition." The forum included time for audience questions. One of the interesting questions asked was what can people in "blue" states do? Schiff said that we should reach out to our friends and family in other states, and we should support organizations with national reach. He reminded that not only do we need citizens to lobby GOP members of Congress, but it is important to strengthen and encourage Democratic senators from states that aren't quite as deep blue as ours. Someone else asked if Schiff would give up his own health insurance if the ACA was repealed. He answered that he would lose his coverage like everyone else on an ACA plan, because he buys his insurance through the Covered California ACA exchange. Another person asked if they should be worried about Medicare. Schiff replied that the ACA had taken several steps to strengthen Medicare, both in terms of benefits (e.g., closing the prescription coverage "donut hole") and in making the program more fiscally sound by effectively slowing the growth of costs. He also noted that repeal of the ACA would add significant costs to the federal budget, and normally the Republicans have always insisted on having the CBO score the "budgetary impact" of every piece of legislation, but they passed a rule to exempt ACA repeal from CBO fiscal impact analysis. They want to sweep the costs of repeal under the rug. (See photos from the forum.)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Action Report: Our First Stand Rally

It was energizing this afternoon to join a large crowd who rallied at the LA County / USC Medical Center for #OurFirstStand to save our healthcare. The rally was well-organized and had a number of good speakers on the theme. Dan Castillo, CEO of the LAC+USC Medical Center, observed that thanks to ACA, the number of uninsured patients coming into their system has dropped from 16% to 2-4%. Mitch Katz, director of LA County Healthcare said that 1.2 million LA County residents had gained coverage under the ACA, while SEIU Local 721 leader Bob Schoonover noted that 63,000 jobs had been created. (It was good to see the "boss" and the union leader speaking side by side on this issue.) Dr. Ronald Brown, the chief resident of psychiatry, spoke about how helpful the ACA's provisions for mental health and substance abuse care have been in helping people with those issues get effective solutions, who in the past would be repeat clients at the emergency room for their symptoms but never getting their root cause problems solved. A couple of individuals spoke about how the ACA has been a lifesaver for them. One was a self-employed insurance broker who had a major medical issue, the other was a daycare provider with a chronic thyroid "pre-existing condition". These woman ran small businesses, the sort where most of our economic growth comes from, and the sort that helping should be a bipartisan issue. They spoke about how the ACA helped keep them on their feet, able to work and to keep their families together, against forces that before the ACA would have been crushing. (See photos from rally.)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Remembering Tante

A few memories of Tante Elayne. We called her Tante, which means aunt in French and German and Yiddish.


Tante was a proud New Yorker. Her heart never left New York, and neither did her voice. Both Tante and Unc lived her over 50 years and never lost their New York accents. We'd say, Tante, we saw a hawk in our yard this morning. A what? We'd show her the picture and she'd say oh, you mean a hawwk. When you said 'hock' I thought you were talking about a piece of ham.

Tante was a vocal right-winger. When asked about her politics, she'd smile and say You know Attila the Hun? I'm to the right of him. My grandfather was a Republican, she growled proudly, he hated FDR even from when he was governor of New York. Like Archie Bunker, she was blunt and not the least "politically correct", but like Archie, she was a lovable curmudgeon. Sunday night family dinners were always lively, as we knew well how to push each other's buttons. She was often outnumbered, but she always stood her ground.

Tante was not an early adopter of technology. It was ages before she was convinced to get an answering machine (not voicemail, mind you, but the machine with the cassette tape in it), and it was only a couple years ago she finally conceded to allow a microwave oven into her kitchen. There's no room on my counter. When the Fresh & Easy market went in down the street, with exclusively self-service check-out, the manager got to know Tante & Unc very well, because they'd always call him over and say we don't know how to do this machine thing, you have to do it for us. As inquisitive and interested in the news as Tante was, you would think she would love the Internet, but when we suggested it, she got such a pained, horrified look on her face. What on earth would I do with the Internet? She was content enough for us to bring our iPhones to Sunday dinner so we could show her pictures from Facebook of what her grandchildren were up to. And she'd ask us to look things up for her. Mostly about her favorite radio personalities. It's no small irony that we were hampered in sharing the Internet with Tante by the fact that this house is a total dead zone for AT&T, as if there's an anti-technology force field protecting the house.

Tante claimed to be anti-social. She didn't use that word, she had better SAT words. She taught me the word dour when I showed her a photo of some 19th century ancestors who looked particularly stern and forbidding. Look at those dour expressions, she said approvingly, my kind of people. If you asked her if she liked meeting people, she would say no, dear, I am a misanthrope. In truth, though, she would talk to anybody, and she loved getting people's stories. When we'd go out to eat, as soon as she finished, she'd excuse herself to go smoke a cigarette out behind the restaurant, and she'd often come back having met someone, and she'd have gotten their whole life story. She would meet friends of mine even just once or twice, and she'd interrogate them, learning things I didn't always know. She wasn't just being polite, she was interested, and she would remember. Not names, so much, but she'd remember stories. Even years after she'd met someone once, she'd ask about them -- whatever happened to your friend the architect, or that one with the young daughter with cataracts, how is she? Some misanthrope.


Tante loved eating. She ate with gusto. And she was a gracious guest. She would always compliment the meal, earnestly and enthusiastically. Even at our very casual Sunday family dinners, she would exclaim with delight about knockwurst and cabbage, as if she were trying the dish for the first time. Of course, my Mom's knockwurst and cabbage is really good. We all love it, but Tante was always the first one to say so. She had a gift for expressing appreciation. “Oh George, you're clearing dishes again, you don't have to do that, you're such a help.” “Oh Thomas, you brought me blueberries, I love blueberries, and so good for you!” A couple years ago, when they needed some extra help, their granddaughter Rachel chose to take her spring break out here helping them. Rachel, you must have heard that appreciation. We sure heard it afterwards. “Oh that Rachel, she's such a help! And such a good cook!” Part of that might have just been a good upbringing by Elayne's mother, who never left the house without her hat and gloves. But Tante always expressed her appreciation so heartily, as if you were the first person to ever clear a dish or bring her an apple. It was a gift, and a good lesson.

Sunday night dinners will never be the same without Tante oleha sholom, v zichronah livrakha (peace be upon her, and may her memory be for a blessing).

Tante Elayne -- Life Sketch

Elayne was born on Feb 18, 1931, in the Bronx, New York City, the daughter of Paul and Rhea Taylor. Her mother's side of the family, the Brantmans, were Jewish. Her grandparents, Louis and Betty Brantman, were eastern European immigrants who met in New York City, and re-enacted Fiddler on the Roof with their family of five daughters, each daughter pushing the boundaries of their father's traditional views a bit further. Paul Taylor, from a line of Taylors going back nearly to the Mayflower, and ancestry entirely English and Scottish, was obviously not Jewish, and not Louis' idea of a perfect match for his daughter, but when Paul agreed to study for two years to convert to Judaism, Louis consented to the match. When Elayne was born, her grandfather registered her birth in temple, where she was given the Jewish name Sarah.

Elayne with her mother and sister
Elayne was Paul and Rhea's first daughter. A year and a half later came Cecile, and for their whole lives, those two would be as close as any two sisters ever were. Their early childhood was the midst of the Great Depression, and their family was as hard hit as any. Paul was an accountant working in Manhattan, and in the late 1920s, when the stock market looked like it could only go up, he had put most of his and his family's money into it. When the girls were very young, Rhea's parents both passed away, and Paul moved his family to New Jersey, where they could be closer to Paul's parents, and his brothers Frank and Don. For a time, the whole extended Taylor family was sharing one house, but later in the 1930s, Paul found steady work at a casting company, and the family had their own home in Great Notch. The girls had a good time there, and used to play on the train cars parked at the station near their house.

By 1941, Elayne's father, who had gone to a military school, was eager to take his part in World War II. The US hadn't joined the war yet, so Paul went up to Canada and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Artillery, where he soon shipped out and spent the rest of the war in the European theater. Rhea, left alone with two young daughters, moved to an apartment in Kew Gardens in Queens, where she could be closer to her sisters Nina and Fanny, and their families. For a time, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Sam lived upstairs in the same building. Nina had two daughters, Carol and Betty, just a bit younger than Elayne and Cecile. After the war, Paul chose to stay in Canada rather than return to his family. Rhea, Elayne, and Cecile lived in that same apartment in Queens throughout the 1940s and most of the 1950s. Elayne and Cecile had happy teenage years there, spending time with family, attending Forest Hills High School, going to social events at the Jewish Community Center, and sometimes going in to the city with their mother, who reportedly never left the house without hat and gloves. When Elayne was about 20 years old, it was at one of those events at the Jewish community center that she met Harold Hess, the handsome elder son of a shopkeeper in Forest Hills. No one remembers exactly how long they courted. Unc Harold says "We met at the party, she invited me home to meet her mother, she was nice, and that was it." The one thing that Harold and Cecile both remember is that when Elayne brought Harold home to meet the family, he offered to fix a broken window shade, but ended up pulling the whole thing down on his head.


Elayne and Harold were married in August 1952, with a reception at the Forest Hills Inn, attended by family including all four of their parents. They moved into a small house on Harmony Drive in Massapequa on Long Island, nearby to her cousin Dottie Stetter and her young family. They enjoyed life in Massapequa, and made a lasting friendship with a neighboring family, the Amendolas. By the end of the 1950s, they had two children, Donna and Victor.

Meanwhile, Elayne's sister Cecile had moved out west, where she met her husband Rod Chatt, and settled in Granada Hills, where the suburbs of LA were just starting to push into the orange groves of the San Fernando Valley. Much as Elayne loved New York, she didn't want to be apart from her sister, and so in 1964, the Hesses moved to Granada Hills. They lived briefly in an apartment on Devonshire, and then moved into this house that is still their home after 50 years. Donna and Victor went to the elementary school right across the street, then Frost Jr High, and Kennedy High, which was built just in time for Donna to attend. The Hesses found more lifelong friends in this neighborhood, including the Hagawaras and the Hillbergs. (Like the Hesses, the Hillbergs are settled people, still here after 50 years.)


While Harold established his window-washing business, Elayne became quietly involved in the community, attending neighborhood watch meetings, and volunteering to be precinct captain of the local election board. But she mostly devoted herself to three great passions. One, she cleaned her house. Constantly. Her house was always immaculate. Two, she listened to conservative talk radio. She never quite warmed to the TV. The TV was fine for Masterpiece Theatre, for Jeopardy, and for Dancing with the Stars. But when it came to politics, for her, all the best people worth listening to were on the radio.

Elayne's third and greatest passion, of course, was rescuing animals. For the first 15 years they lived here, there was just a big open field from here to Balboa, at the end of the valley, a place where thoughtless people would dump unwanted pets. Her first rescue was Penny, an orange tabby who showed her love by bringing her mother trophies she'd catch in the field: birds, rats, gophers, all were no match for Penny. Elayne was particularly fond of Staffordshire bull terriers, more commonly known as the much-maligned "pit bull", and she took in several pit bulls over the years that had been mistreated by prior owners. When her house was filled with pets, she then filled her sister's house too. Many of the Chatts' pets were Elayne's rescues. And if you've seen their menageries, you know that clearly Donna and Victor have both inherited their mother's big heart for animals.

Elayne liked her life guided by routine. 9pm phone calls every night with her sister. Going out every Saturday night with the Chatts. Family dinner every Sunday at the Chatt or the Hess home. Getting together the whole family on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Visits every summer by Donna and her kids. I think she would like to be remembered simply, as faithful to her family, as a good neighbor and citizen, and as a lover of animals. And for 85 good years, that's exactly what she was.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Remembering Kathryn

On Saturday, a large crowd gathered at our church to remember our dear friend Dr. Kathryn Nelson Magarian. We were heartened (but not surprised) to see how many came, many from far away, to celebrate the life of a much beloved soul. Kathryn was one of those rare people who literally radiated joy and positivity. She beamed, often, with a room-lighting smile and a voice near song that made you feel like the most special person in the world, and she had the gift of making everyone feel special. When she met you, she would say that she was so glad to meet you, or so glad to see you, and she said it in a way that was so genuine and so not an automatic pleasantry that the words would strike you fresh, like you'd never heard them that way before, and you'd think "wow, she really is glad to see me!" At the end of church services, a crowd would always gather around her regular pew in the front-left, and her caregiver would have to wait patiently, as everyone wanted to spend a little time with Kathryn.

George and I first got to know her in 2008, when some mutual friends asked if we could give her a ride to their wedding in Redlands. Kathryn suffered from a degeneration of the cerebellum that gave her tremors and had made her unable to drive herself any longer. We were happy to oblige, and of course a long car ride can be a great way to get to know someone. She had lived a very full life and was full of great stories. She was recently retired from a 37-year career as a pediatrician at the White Memorial Hospital, having started as a legal secretary and then putting herself through med school in her thirties. She had traveled the world and been on great adventures, including hunting wild game in Africa (for the sake of spending quality time with her father, though she had the game trophies in her home to prove it). But as much as she had done and seen, she was also a great listener and eager to know all about us. At the end of that day, we knew we had made a great new friend.

There's an adage that one way to judge someone on a date is to see how they treat the waiter. Kathryn's contagious joy in people extended to everyone, and that was very clear if you ever took her to a restaurant that she had frequented before. All the staff would light up to see her, because they would all remember her, and she remembered them, often by name, knew their stories, asked about their families. Everyone was special to her, and made to feel special. In recent years, when she was spending more time in the hospital, it was the same story there. It was clear that all the nurses and staff had a special affection for Dr. Kathryn. At her memorial, Dr. Beth Zachary, the CEO of Adventist Health Southern California Region, spoke about how it was difficult just to move Kathryn around in the hospital, because they couldn't get very far down any hallway before they'd run into someone she had cared for as a doctor, and they'd light up to see her, and she'd light up to see them, remembering their names, their stories, their families, like they were the most special person in the world. As this remembrance was shared, hundreds of us smiled and nodded knowingly, having seen it ourselves.

Her radiant joy was a miracle in itself, but it was all the more amazing when I think about the great hardships she faced in her life. I'd mentioned the debilitating cerebellar degeneration. Recurrent cancers were piled on top of that. And she endured other brutal non-medical hardships I won't detail. She had more cause than most anyone to complain or to question her faith, and yet she did not do either. She remained unceasingly faithful in God, and unfailingly joyful in life. This loving woman, who probably would have loved to have had children of her own, was not given that. Yet when asked if she had children, she would reply with no sorrow and a genuine bright smile, "I was a pediatrician for 37 years, I have hundreds of children." And she adopted more as she went. We felt like she adopted us. That was just her nature to see the positive in everything, to find some cause for joy in each day, and to share it. Our world is a bit dimmer now without her light in it. She was an inspiration, and I hope I can honor her memory by striving to find joy in everything and share it with those around me.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Three Black Lives

Accepting the premise that Black Lives Matter, I figured I should be reading more about contemporary black lives, and so I picked up three very different memoirs, each essential reading in its own way. I started with How To Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston. Much of the book skewers the uneasiness of race consciousness in contemporary America, with satirical advice on topics like "how to speak for all black people" and "how to be black at the office". The satire is funny and sharp (as one would expect given Thurston's long career at The Onion), puncturing perceptions, making you think and laugh at the same time. Interspersed with the advice chapters, we get the fascinating story of Thurston's own life, growing up with a single mother in Washington DC during the height of crack, then being one of the few black kids at an elite private school and later attending Yale. And the third component of his book is a series of interview questions with what he calls his "black panel", a set of "experts" on being black (which included one white guy for a scientific control), who added another dimension with the fascinating diversity of their experiences. The questions were all great, but the most interesting one for me was "When did you first realize you were black?" This particularly struck me, since as a gay man, I had always assumed gays were unique among minorities in having to realize later in life that we are gay. But the question, while humorous, elicited some serious responses. Even though black kids always know they're black, many of them did remember particular experiences when they first realized that being black was more than just a skin tone, that it was a social category. The whole book was entertaining and gently illuminating. 

From this light start, I then turned up the gravitas with Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, a memoir written in the form of a letter from a father to his teenage son, telling his son the things he needs to know about where his father came from and what it means to him being black in America today. Coates grew up in a really rough part of Baltimore, and describes at a young age learning the rules of the street just to avoid being stabbed or shot. He later went to Howard University, which he calls "the Mecca", and was enthralled with that center of black culture. He describes people he knew and who influenced him, and things he has experienced that instilled in him an understanding of the particularly breakable vulnerable nature of "black bodies" -- everything from minor but telling affronts to personally knowing a man who was shot by police basically for being black in the wrong neighborhood. Everything is grounded in his very personal experience, avoiding polemics or politics, and that makes it profoundly powerful. It's all what he saw, what he lived, and what he felt. Polemics invite debate, but experience has a raw truth with no place for debate. His intense missive is elevated by the words with which his experiences are described. His prose is masterful, emotionally vivid and evocatively poetic. It is truly a brilliant work of writing, and a must-read for anyone wanting to understand this experience. In Coates' book, he spoke of his complete alienation from the white suburban lives he saw on TV as a child, and of those suburbs being built on piles of "broken black bodies" by the "people who need to think of themselves as white". While I understood his feelings, he didn't really explain what he thought caused that situation, and I didn't understand it until Cory Booker spelled it out for me.

The third book I read was United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and now US Senator from New Jersey. His memoir is an inspirational story: we get some brief glimpses of his childhood growing up in one of the first black families to integrate themselves into the very white Harrington Park, New Jersey, and then attending Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School. The meat of the story starts with him as an idealistic newly-minted lawyer wanting to help improve the city of Newark, and getting a real hands-on education by choosing to live in one of the most crime-ridden parts of the inner city. He tells the story of Brick Towers, a 16-story housing complex built in 1970, initially a promising place to live, but ultimately dragged down by landlord neglect to suffer rat infestations and broken elevators, and its location in a neighborhood of the city effectively semi-abandoned by the City of Newark to become a center of drug dealing. In the years he lived there, he got to know just about everyone, and he tells the story of the indomitable woman who lead the tenants association, of parents and kids who live there, and even of the drug dealers who worked there. He gains and shares fascinating insight into who these people are and how they got to be where they are. This is all intermixed with his own story of how he went from being a public interest lawyer to city councilman and eventually mayor and senator. Some skeptics will say that his actions and his book are all politically self-serving, but I think he came across as genuinely concerned to improve his city and his country. Living in blighted housing for a few days or weeks is a publicity stunt; Cory Booker lived in Brick Towers for 10 years until it was torn down, and then he sought another crime-ridden area of his city to move to. I don't see how one can say that's not the real deal. I found his book inspirational, in terms of gaining a new understanding of deep social problems that suggest practical solutions, and in terms of the faith that drives him, a combination of religious faith and a faith in his fellow citizens to work together to find solutions. I think Cory Booker is a new hero for me.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Reflections on Antonin Scalia

I can say this about Scalia: the man knew how to wield a pen. His dissents were always colorful and entertaining, a guilty pleasure to read. How can one not appreciate someone who can drop words like "argle-bargle" and "jiggery-pokery" when brandishing his prose? It's unfortunate that this skill wasn't put in the service of better ends. In the annals of the Court, Scalia will be remembered for bringing the notions of "textualism" and "originalism" into currency. These are the ideas that correct judicial interpretation of the Constitution can be readily found by reading the plain words (textualism) and understanding the Founders' original meaning (originalism). They are meant to counter the notion that the Constitution is a "living document" that must be interpreted by the Court according to its essential principles in light of current understanding. Students of religion will recognize these theories as they apply to Biblical hermeneutics, and students of history will recognize how well the idea that one can gain universal agreement on the clear interpretation of the "plain words" (sola scriptura) works out. Taken at face value, Scalia's principles would have to rule that the Air Force is unconstitutional, as the plain text of the Constitution enumerates only an Army and a Navy, and the idea of military air power would not have been conceived of by the Founders. Though challenged on it, Scalia never did really explain how an originalist could endorse a decision like Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 decision that ended school segregation), since the ratifiers of the 14th Amendment certainly didn't foresee or intend that implication themselves. His dodge is that he would have correctly decided Plessy v. Ferguson in the first place (that's the notorious 1896 case that ruled "separate but equal" schools constitutional). That's cheap hindsight. It's far more likely that an 1896 Scalia would have been as benighted by the prejudices of the day, finding segregated schools a reasonable social norm, as the present-day Scalia who heartily endorsed Bowers v. Hardwick (the infamous 1986 case upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws). As called out in a New York Times opinion piece by Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner and law professor Eric Segall, Scalia is really a theocratic majoritarian at heart, content to find no power in the Constitution to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority, at least when it comports with his own conservative morality. When his principles would seem to lead to a conclusion that went counter to his personal morality, his intellect and prose would be brought to bear to torture his principles into confessing the desired conclusion. See, for example, his opinion for the Court in Raich v. Gonzales, finding that Congress's Commerce power could regulate people growing pot in their own backyard for their own personal use, and Justice Thomas's dissent in a rare split from Scalia. Likewise, one might well wonder how a textualist or an originalist finds "corporate personhood" (the idea that corporations are persons, and thus have the same rights as persons) in the plain text or original meaning of the Constitution. While he refused to see the straight lines from the Founders' principles through de Toqueville and John Stuart Mill to landmark decisions like Griswold (finding a fundamental right to marital privacy that made it unconstitutional to outlaw contraception) and Lawrence (overturning Bowers and sodomy laws), he could see "penumbras" when he wanted to. Ultimately, he was as guilty of "interpretive jiggery-pokery" as anyone. His originalism may have provided better cover for his anti-gay animus, except that his apoplectic dissents on every landmark advance in gay rights over the last thirty years unabashedly laid bare his conservative moral prejudices. Despite the clear constitutional jurisprudence that "bare animus" is insufficient rationale for a discriminatory law (i.e., a majority may not outlaw a minority without a reason better than "ew that's weird"), Scalia, in his dissent in Romer v. Evans, rises to the defense of bare animus when it amounts to moral disapproval of homosexual conduct. Beyond his legacy of originalism, he also leaves a legacy of coarsening the level of discourse around contentious issues, unfortunately now embodied in the records of our highest court, and emulated by many of his Federalist Society acolytes. The admittedly entertaining creativity of his prose often belied bare pugnaciousness, light on real argument. He was famous for his tart interrogations during oral arguments, and the zingers in his dissents. Here is a typical example in his stinging dissent in Obergefell (last year's landmark gay marriage ruling):

If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.
This is just plain mockery of Justice Kennedy's opinion, with no particular "disciplined legal reasoning" of its own to offer. (One might claim that there is legal reasoning elsewhere in the dissent, but really, no, it's just one long rant about "judicial putsch" that could have been equally aimed at Lawrence or Griswold or Loving or even Brown.) If ever there were a time to hide one's head in a bag, I would think it would be after writing something so derisive and insulting about a colleague I'd be facing the next day (and working closely with for the rest of my life). Often it is only the cleverness of the prose that distinguishes Scalia's writing from the incivil name calling and insults found on the typical Internet comments page (or more recently, the Republican debates). One might consider him the Supreme Court's original troll. A few years ago, when he was speaking at Princeton, a gay student pointed out the language in some of Scalia's dissents that was especially offensive (such as comparing homosexuality to bestiality or pedophilia) and asked him, even if he still stood by his argument, if he had any regrets for his offensive choice of words. No, he did not. It is ironic that he worried he was witnessing the deterioration of our culture with the advance of gay rights (despite his best efforts to fight it at every opportunity), and yet by his own example he lead the coarsening of constitutional legal discourse and contributed to the erosion of respect for the institution he served. That being said, I will miss reading his dissents. There is the guilty pleasure of the zingers, of course. But the best part of reading a Scalia dissent is knowing that it was a dissent, and that despite his grandiloquent tantrums, liberty and justice prevailed.