Category Archives: Racism

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Spending my high school and college years in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I have seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

It was Year #2 for the Women’s March, and I should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the heart of Washington DC. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered wandered out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it was an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. My sense of the mood of the crowd (far smaller than last year’s mammoth event) was … complicated. We were exhorted by speaker after speaker to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. Yet it was preaching to the choir – we were there because we are the committed. But even our staunch commitment has limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after such speeches droned on well over one hour past the march start time. Still, the afternoon was well spent, and reinforcing, and at this stage I will take what solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will feel again that they are pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game.

We’re walking on thin ice, in so many ways. I view the sheet of ice from the perspective of a career in the context of America’s international role. Through that lens, there’s so little to celebrate. The State Department and USAID are suffering not only slashed budgets and a brain-drain at the higher levels, but also and concurrently the loss of the remarkable international networks of friends and acquaintances that took these former staff decades to assemble. Even the tiny Peace Corps, our least expensive but arguably most beloved international agency whose remarkably positive impact on global peace puts “bang for the buck” and public service into perspective, is facing 20% cuts in its workforce.

Such venerable federal institutions represent the best of American values in the world, but now they are hemorrhaging people of unmatched international experience and wisdom – people who could not find any way to reconcile their own professionalism and deep commitment both to universal human rights and to the U.S. Constitution with having to serve an administration that personifies the opposite. The venal, narcissistic, boorish, serially dishonest, ill-informed, racist, anti-democratic, and deeply biased Donald Trump and his enablers are leading us as a nation away from widely recognized urgent global priorities (climate change, increasing economic inequalities, rising levels of gender-based violence and intolerance around the world, the decline in democracy in nation after nation, to name but a few). And while Trump and his “America First” agenda callously turns America inward, he pushes on with enforcing the Global Gag Rule which imposes draconian restrictions to nearly $9 billion in U.S. health assistance to women around the world.

We’re walking on thin ice. This administration is failing to honor our international commitments to protect the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, stigmatizing (against all prevailing empirical evidence to the contrary) these desperate and vulnerable people as a criminal and terrorism threat, while slashing our contributions to international agencies providing essential humanitarian support to these very people who number well in excess of 3 million (of whom 80% are women and children). Refugees and asylum seekers who are already in the United States, trying earnestly to rebuild their lives, are now facing new reasons to fear for their futures as they see their religions, diverse national heritages, and personal integrity trashed. Our country’s callous treatment of refugees and asylum seekers now here – many of whom face existential threats to their lives and safety in the countries they fled from – is a betrayal of who we are as a nation of immigrants.

Human dignity and human rights seem sadly absent from the Trump agenda. The inward-focus of this government is pushing us to a place on the ice where our longstanding reputation as a global democratic leader and champion of human dignity is no longer supportable. As I watched the ice walkers on the Reflecting Pool, I almost believed I could hear the ice cracking far away as Vice President Pence meets this weekend with Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This strongman is one of the Trump administration’s inner circle of favored authoritarian dictators, each with egregious records of human rights abuses. And the fault lines in the ice of global cohesion and peace expanded exponentially with Trump’s recent vulgar and appalling characterization of African, Caribbean, and Central American nations and their citizens.

The antics of the ice walkers yesterday were captivating. One could disparage their rationality and risk-taking for venturing out onto the ice, but I am not in a position to pass judgement. They had their reasons. I watched as the ice warned them again and again, with its sagging under their weight, and the small cracks joining into ever-larger cracks that raced toward the ice walkers as they tried to make their escape to the concrete surroundings. They were not fast enough, the ice gave way, and down they sunk into the very cold waters below. Certain paths take us to places where the dire outcomes are inevitable – and predictable.

The most compelling aspect of their ice drama however was not their splash through the shimmering white surface; it was their struggle to regain their footing. Each time they tried to climb out, the ice at the edge of the hole collapsed, and they sunk in again. It took multiple tries, and usually the helping hands of others, to regain their safety on a solid, dry surface.

How long will it take this great country to realize that the ice is cracking under us? The evidence of a fall from international respect is abundant; many would say we are well past a place where we can avoid that calamity. Some will say we are already wet, well above the ankles, and getting higher. Yet the turbulent waters under the thin ice of global cohesion and collaboration are far more dangerous, and much deeper. War with North Korea, irreversible climate change, the inevitable push back to come from the #MeToo movement, the growing and violent assault against sexual and gender minorities…the cracks are too many to count.

Every crack in the ice testifies to the global decline in respect for universal human dignity and the architecture of human rights that has been built upon it. We’re urgently in need of solid-footed leadership based on defensible and universal secular moral values, on principled examples, and a vision for global cooperation and peace.

Let’s pull America from the yawning hole in the ice, starting now and at the ballot boxes in November.


Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary


The position of President of the United States of America is intended for those whom we most esteem – people we hold up to our children as exemplars of all that is best about this beloved country. Just speaking aloud such names as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, or Franklin Roosevelt is to invoke respect and awe…these leaders and many others among our past presidents truly were transformational, and we honor them. Based on such exemplars, we now rightly expect anyone holding this highest office to model the virtues of wisdom and temperance, decency and compassion, empathy and judgment, patience and restraint, and unyielding respect for the human dignity of all persons. In their private lives, and in their business and public transactions, we expect them to be accountable to the core secular ethical standards that underpin the public trust: competence, civility, transparency, honesty, responsibility, consistency, and accountability. We look to their courage and fortitude, we depend on their reliability and honor. We delight if they are witty. They should be patriots in the best sense of that concept – dedicated to upholding the Constitution and being wholly committed to the pursuit of the common good…in which “common” means for everyone. No exceptions.

It is a very high standard, and historically no previous president has scored highly in all respects. Our presidents have not been saints, but their human foibles and modest limitations have made them people we could relate to. And yes, Donald Trump will soon ride to his electoral college victory by having cultivated that populist persona – a flawed man that ordinary folk could relate to. Those attributes are important, but not nearly good enough. At an absolute minimum, the President of the United States must be someone we can trust. Continue reading Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

The fight for America’s soul


Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

dignity free and equal

Our world is beset by callousness and brutality.

The death toll grows each day from the cruel violence of Boko Haram, Daesh/ISIS, Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Quds Force, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups, all of whom frequently target even defenseless women and children. President Assad and his Russian allies indiscriminately attack areas thickly populated by Syrian civilians, and the fighting roils on in Iraq, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan. We’ve become numb to the incessant news reports of yet more civilians suffering grievous harm, adversity, or death, and there’s no reasoning with those who place scant value on destroying human lives except as instrumental statements on their unyielding ideological trajectories.

In this context, what are we to make of the opening line of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”? After all, there are no qualifying clauses to cover the significance of human dignity in the eventuality of death by violent extremism. For far too many “free and equal” members of humanity, threats of violence, brutality, exclusion, subjugation, and death itself appear to have rendered our global moment of idealism when that Declaration was signed back in December of 1948 as, at best, a curious historical anomaly.

Is the notion of universal human dignity not sheer folly in 2016?

It’s worth noting from the outset that “human dignity” has several meanings. My first assignment for the students of my new graduate-level course on Human Dignity was to read a short opinion piece – “In Search of Dignity” – that conservative cultural commentator David Brooks had written in the New York Times back in July of 2009. Brooks described a “dignity code” as a set of rules and civic virtues, and it was his contention that this dignity code was exemplified by George Washington. According to Brooks, Washington subordinated his personal interests to national interests and duty. Brooks’ message however was not sanguine, as he concluded that “…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone”. And while Brooks did allow that “Americans still admire dignity”, he asserts that there is no longer any popular consensus on, or practice of, the ethical standards that constitute such dignified convictions and behavior in the United States.

The concept of human dignity however is much more ambitious than seeking widespread consensus on rules of conduct, or on matters of deportment. Yes, for someone to sacrifice perceived self-interests for the greater good is refreshing, and we all know of examples of that taking place (starting with parenting). And human dignity is certainly more than just a reflection of social status or bearing, although that more limited definition of dignity still has its place in certain contexts. So while I applaud David Brooks for his pondering on one dimension of human dignity, I am arguing that in the context of the exceptionally violent world of 2016 we ought to refocus our sights on that most ambitious interpretation of the human dignity concept: that “being human” means that we are each unique and valuable, and that we are each as valuable as any other person on the planet.

That’s a very large statement, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the way in which humanity conducts itself on this planet. Or, as stated most poignantly by Princeton University’s emeritus professor of politics, George Kateb: “The pathetic fact is that the only enemies of human dignity are human beings.” What is it that drives so many who are in positions of economic, military, political, social, or governance power to erode the shared basis that all of us – each and every human being on this planet – depend upon as the moral and ethical foundation for all human rights, all laws, and any sense of justice: human dignity? Continue reading The folly – and necessity – of human dignity