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When a defender of democracy loses its way

By Tom Ehrich

American democracy is in peril when some of its key defenders lose their way.

Many work to defend American democracy. Voters who vote, of course, as well as our large and complex legal system, from judges to enforcement personnel, plus an educational system that enables citizens to process complex information, and the men and women in uniform who defend our freedoms.

But nothing surpasses the defense provided by a free press and especially by a handful of news enterprises: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, a few other newspapers, a small handful of magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and a few online news teams.

They dig for truth and hold candidates and officeholders accountable. If one candidate brags that he has been a huge success as a businessman but the record shows a consistent string of failures, bankruptcies, stiffing vendors and employees, fraudulent enterprises, and bullying government officials, a free press lets us know. What citizens choose to do with this information is a great imponderable, of course. Many denounce the media for reporting it. But nothing will be healthy if the facts aren’t known.

A free press enables all citizens to listen in on a political campaign rally or a debate and to draw our own individual conclusions. We aren’t limited to what the candidates say in ads and puffball interviews.

An effective free press provides the same fact-based, unfettered and bold coverage of the economy and its key players, education and what students are actually experiencing, and popular culture as it shapes our values and awareness.

Perhaps the single most worrisome phenomenon of this election system isn’t the demagoguery of Donald Trump. It’s the failure of The New York Times to cover this campaign effectively, with insight and perspective, and to help voters understand what is going on. Following a foolish doctrine of “false equivalence,” The Times has led the way in giving Trump a free pass on the dangerous, fraudulent, fascistic content of his campaign.

Fortunately, The Times sees its errors. Investigative reporting of Trump’s background and business enterprises has intensified. Last week, the paper demoted its Washington bureau chief for the paper’s poor political coverage. This morning, columnist Nicholas Kristof said, “We owe it to our readers to signal when we’re writing about a crackpot.” He said, “We should be guard dogs, not lap dogs, and when the public sees Trump as more honest than Clinton, something has gone wrong.”

Political coverage is more than a scorecard, more than reporting on poll results, more than naming the odds of who will win, as if American democracy were a pro football weekend. The woods and web are filled with shouts and outrage, conspiracy theories and invective of the basest sort. In this storm of one-sided words that are unhinged from fact, reason and civility, our democracy depends on at least a few news enterprises telling us the truth.

Democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate. The blizzard of lies, conspiracy theories, threats and bigotry don’t constitute “informed.” It’s important to know when a lie is a lie, a conspiracy theory is nonsense, a threat violates civil and human rights, and bigotry trespasses on American values.

Most news enterprises won’t tell us any of that. We depend on a handful of serious news organizations to remember their reason for existing.

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The destructive allure of "bubble thinking"

By Tom Ehrich

Ever witnessed “bubble thinking”? Here’s what it looks like.

It looks like Apple trying to get away with a minor upgrade to its iPhone and Apple Watch, an upgrade that barely moved the needle on performance, features or design, and yet was labeled courageous and exciting. Only someone living inside the Apple fan-boy bubble could be fooled by a new color for the iPhone – shiny black, easy to scratch, costing $749 and up – and a new ceramic band for the watch.

Tech critics wondered if Apple had simply run out of ideas. I doubt that. Bubble thinking isn’t about ideas, it’s about living in the echo-chamber of self-reinforcing perceptions and making too much of the incremental nudge that the guy next to you considers a game-changer.

“Bubble thinking” looks like the absurd theater that NBC put forward when it sent an entertainment anchor to moderate policy interviews with presidential candidates. The result, even NBC admitted, was a “disaster.” The outclassed anchor proved himself unprepared and incompetent. With tough-as-nails, highly informed Rachel Maddow available for the event, NBC chose lightweight Matt Lauer. That’s “bubble thinking.”

“Bubble thinking” looks like the Trump campaign, in which an uninformed candidate tries to capture the White House with bullying, invective, bigotry-flogging, and a torrent of lies that defy real-time fact-checkers. His vocal fans love the show and have no interest in facts, policies or democratic principles. They just love getting permission to shout hatred. Trump’s bubble rallies are hothouse events that only like-minded souls are allow to attend, where Trump shouts, the people shout and Trump turns their shouts into ad hoc pronouncements.

“Bubble thinking” looks like high season at the Hamptons on Long Island, and its counterparts in other urban areas, where extremely wealthy people enjoy supremely precious time parading in expensive tribal costumes and talking passionately about things that don’t matter, and then return to boardrooms and law firms determined to grab even more wealth from a struggling economy so that they can do it again next summer.

“Bubble thinking” looks like a $5 million fifth-floor walkup apartment in lower Manhattan. It looks like a $200,000 college education that provides no skills or mental toughness for jobs that actually exist.

Inside the bubble, people don’t deal with facts or truth. They deal with what they want to earn, not the value of what they do. They deal with the promise of great wealth if they can scam the market quickly enough, not the long-term damage done by fraudsters. They love the excitement of high-octane collaboration and don’t stop to ask if their efforts accomplish any worthwhile purpose. They love the money and the toys and don’t ask about real costs and real benefits.

Inside the bubble, fooling people matters more than serving people. Getting elected matters more than strengthening democracy. Having power matters more than using power for the good. Keeping the doors open matters more than doing anything worthwhile inside them. The interests of shareholders matter more than the employees who create the wealth and customers who buy the product.

Bubbles are enticing, and yet they always burst. Sometimes dramatically like the dot-com bust around 1999 or the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and beyond. Sometimes in sad middle-of-the-night abandonment, like the poorly managed company that raids pension funds, borrows heavily, and then closes its doors with little warning and no accountability. Sometimes the bubble bursts in a house that won’t sell, a product that falls short of hype while it’s still being financed, or a commencement ceremony where highly paid administrators dispense expensive degrees to graduates burdened with debt, and then send them out to a job market that isn’t fooled by their diplomas.

If Trump can keep his bubble intact long enough to capture the presidency, the bursting of it will be epic, tragic and dangerous. But it will burst. We can be sure of that. Bubbles always burst. Bubble thinking always loses out to reality.

For example, the Matt Lauer/NBC bubble didn’t last even the length of his show. Even as he cowered before the bully, knowledgeable reporters and analysts were calling Lauer to account. The aftermath was blistering. His career is down the tubes. In the end, Lauer’s apparent intention to embarrass Clinton and to build up fellow entertainer Trump backfired and had the opposite effect.

The moral: don’t mess with bubbles. They don’t last, and they do great damage when they burst. Better to see reality, tell truth, and accept the ups and downs of accountability.

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Labor Day: Jesus' kind of holiday

By Tom Ehrich

If work were compensated according to its value to society, trash haulers would earn bigtime and bankers would earn less. Schoolteachers would earn more than administrators and way more than attorneys.

Those who assemble cars would earn more than those who design them. Nurses, ER docs and first-responders would earn more than Big Pharma executives. Hospice staff would earn more than the Big Tobacco executives who dispensed cancer-sticks. Plumbers would earn more than hedge fund managers. And so it would go.

Labor Day, of course, is our annual reminder that we don’t live in a just and rational world. We live in a world where the ownership class lords it over those whose backs, hands, imaginations and minds actually create wealth. Labor Day exists as a celebration of organized labor, which the right wing excoriates as socialist, communist, and welfare for the lazy, but in fact are the ones building the nation. And the ones fighting its wars. And the ones paying its taxes.

A healthy system needs all of us, owners and workers, those amassing capital for factory construction and those working in those factories and those selling its products and those buying those products. We don’t live in such a system, where all are appreciated and treated fairly. Greed has run the table.

Some religious folks will fuss about Labor Day being called a “holiday,” because it isn’t actually a “holy-day.” I disagree. If any holiday could catch the imagination of Jesus, it would be Labor Day. For workers and the one-down were his constituency. The wealthy had no need for him. In fact, they resented him.

An estimated two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching were about wealth and power. A holiday that honors rank-and-file workers and calls the owner class to account is exactly what Jesus had in mind.

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IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO ALL READERS

By Tom Ehrich

IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO ALL READERS

I am about to undertake what is called a “fork.”

One direction will be a continuation of the writing I have been doing for many years. Daily On a Journey meditations, a Weekly Essay, the Church Wellness Report, and regular blogposts on faith, ethics and politics. Plus Fresh Day online magazine.

The new direction will be a focus on aging. Now that I have turned 70, it seems time to write about aging and to offer resources that will help you in your aging and/or in your role as a caregiver or pastor.

I have created two new web sites:

www.tomehrich.com is a personal site that will provide access to all that I am writing and a blog on what I am learning about aging.

www.agingwellproject.com is a site offering resources, links, useful writings, poems, videos and other tools that pertain to aging. I will publish a weekly newsletter containing those resources.

Both sites are launched, but with little material on them yet.

I would like to start sending blog and newsletter to all of my readers, to give you a glimpse of what I am doing. Eventually, I will invite you to join targeted mailing lists. For now, just enjoy and send me your feedback. (Send to tom@tomehrich.com.)

May I take this opportunity to tell you how much I appreciate your interest in my writing? I spend much of my workday in writing – a never-ending struggle to marshal my thoughts, find words to express them, and get them out to interested readers. Knowing that you are out there and reading my pieces makes a huge difference.

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Saying No to evil

By Tom Ehrich

Some years ago, I made two new friends through Cursillo. Later they transferred to my parents’ church, so I saw them on visits home.

Lovely people.

The other day I opened my Facebook newsfeed and found a friend request from one of them. I was happy to oblige, though I did wonder, Aren’t we already friends on Facebook? It’s hard to keep track on social media.

Almost immediately I got a Facebook message from her: “Hello.” I don’t normally respond to Facebook messages. She tried again a day later. This time I said, “Hi.” She asked how I was doing. I said, “Great.” She asked what I planned to do today. I said, “Work.”

I usually rise above the monosyllabic. But this exchange sounded canned. Sure enough, her next message asked, “Have you heard the good news?”

There it was, the “good news” scam. If I kept going, the writer would eventually tell me about a Federal program to give away money, if I would just follow their instructions. I replied that I found it “sordid” that this person had hacked my friend’s account and was trying a scam. No response from the other end.

Same thing happened the other day, when another friend’s Facebook account got hacked by a “good news” scammer. I confronted them, and they backed off.

I don’t mind playing this game. It’s interesting, in an odd way. But I do find it sordid that a promising social medium like Facebook has become such a cesspool of scams, attacks posts, lies, bullying and partisan demagoguery.

I have wanted to use Facebook to disseminate information about my writing and to build my subscriber base. But I wonder. What do I lose by being associated with a cesspool? I work hard on my writing and try to use my words to draw people closer to God and to their own best selves. Does using Facebook implicitly lump me in with the scammers and predators?

It’s confusing. My family is on Facebook. Many longtime friends are there. I see photos of my grandchildren and read updates on lives I care about. But in and around this good stuff come the Oakley ads, the “good news” scams, the attacks and deceit from Breitbart and the right-wing, the outlandish claims about partisan enemies, and the vile nastiness of racists.

It’s like standing on a street corner as a Klan parade goes by. The parade isn’t about me, but it’s there, crowding my field of vision. I can tune it out, but it’s still there, the stench of evil bypassing my filters.

I stay on Facebook, though with diminished expectations of any personal or commercial benefit. I just think it’s important that I not hide from the stench of evil. I think we all need to look evil in the face and say, No.

I think we need to read reports from inside Trump rallies and hear the hatred on display and the threats to kill journalists once their candidate is elected. That is evil, not responsibler partisan polityical expression.

The time to confront evil is right away – early in its rise if possible, the first time you see it, or when the stench becomes overwhelming. Evil doesn’t just evaporate. Evil spreads as far and as fast as we allow it to spread.

Say it early, or say it late, but a resounding NO must be said. Evil won’t stop until decent people push back.

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Freedom will carry the day

By Tom Ehrich

Some days my caller is “Julia,” who is excited that I have been pre-approved for a $250,000 business loan. Other days it is “Lisa,” who’s calling to congratulate me on winning some “reward” for having visited an unnamed web site.

Another “Lisa” has great news about boosting my credit score. (What is it about the name “Lisa”? Is it like the deliberate errors in spelling and grammar in a “Nigerian letter”: a sign that my caller is a simple-minded girl whom I can outwit? First cousin, of course, to the car salesman who is smarter than I will ever be about hawking overpriced cars.)

I quickly block the incoming number on my iPhone, but these clever ladies must have several hundred phone numbers available to them. Today’s call by “Julia” was from some hamlet in New Jersey.

Their automated scripts apparently were written by the sadist who moonlights as a customer service manager at Microsoft. His mission is to make customer service so maddening that I will never call Microsoft again. Interesting approach to supporting product.

Then there’s the thoughtful person who hacks a friend’s Facebook account and sends me a message asking if I have heard the “good news.” As you know, good news isn’t a staple on social media, so maybe this is a break in the caustic flow. Alas, it turns out to be a scam for getting free government money.

So here I sit with an iPhone 6 Plus, the current acme of technological advancement at the largest company in the world. Its main telephonic function is opening the door to telemarketers masquerading as ebullient easy-to-fool girls just aching to help me solve life problems like my credit score. How did several thousand brilliant minds get sidetracked onto this trivial pursuit?

But no matter. If Apple can convince people to buy a high-end smartphone product that hasn’t been significantly improved in three years, that’s their business. If Microsoft can build customer loyalty through wretched customer service, more power to them. If Facebook can monetize users’ desire for friendship, go for it. In the era of Donald Trump, lying and cheating and pretending to be important might well be a path to victory.

A day of reckoning will come, of course. You can’t fool people forever. Apple-watchers are worried the iconic brand may be losing its way by counting on fanboys’ automatic upgrade fever. Sarcastic ads aren’t helping Microsoft move its hardware. Facebook users seem to be getting savvier and warier, which bodes ill for the social medium. Twitter is already tanking. Tech brands like Cisco and Yahoo are in deep trouble.

Big banks are back at their bad-boy behavior. But this time, the market is paying attention. So are government regulators. Housing prices in Manhattan and San Francisco got so absurd that the market shifted against them. The bloom has faded for WeWork, a high-flying startup whose customers are discovering that renting small spaces with no privacy, a lot of frat–boy noise and poaching of employees isn’t all that appealing.

In other words, people do eventually wake up and see reality. They see empty promises made by employers. They see the poor cost-benefit of an Ivy League education. They see products that don’t deliver and customer service that doesn’t serve. Even lovely “Lisa” can’t keep us on the line.

Polls suggest that The Donald is losing his ability to cast a spell. His aura of business acumen has been dimmed by actual results of his enterprises. Years of cheating on contracts are catching up with him. Now that people outside his raging cohort are paying attention to his rhetoric, they are fleeing. Doing the old “wink-wink” on bigotry is turning people against other GOP candidates.

The good news, I think, is that when people have freedom and choices, they tend to move in a healthy direction. That’s why big banks, software makers and employers work so hard to keep us tethered – unfree – by making it difficult to unwind from them. But nimble competitors keep emerging that counteract that strategy. No wonder Trump promises that his first sortie as President would be to trash freedom of the press, followed by walling off the free movement of peoples.

I put my bet on freedom. God made us to be free. Anything less than freedom won’t last for long. Sorry, “Lisa.”

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Work for a trustworthy election

By Tom Ehrich

The top GOP candidate sees his stock falling and begins to position himself as a sore loser, brought down by a “rigged” system, “vicious” attacks, “crooked” opposition. No surprise. Trump would rather crash the constitutional system than bear the label “loser.”

If it were just a bully taking his ball and slinking home, that would be one thing. But he would leave behind a large and angry mob, whose penchant for violent language could well feed a penchant for violent action.

I suspect that this will be Trump’s endgame. Reject me in November, he will threaten, and my people will take to the streets. Nice. Reject me, and I’ll sue you blind and prevent the orderly transfer of power in January 2017. Double nice.

One of the hallmarks of American democracy has been the peaceful transfer of power every few years. In any given election, roughly half the people will be disappointed. In a healthy system, led by healthy and responsible people, the losing side accepts disappointment and vows to try again in four years.

The GOP candidate, however, has no interest in democracy or national interest. His narcissism has no room for such values. He thrives on the mob’s adulation, swarming rage, readiness to do his bidding in assaulting the vulnerable. He will have no interest in lowering their intensity. Let them riot.

Then, if his career in business is any harbinger, Trump will abandon them, as he has fled creditors and consequences in bankruptcy filings. Imagine the mob’s rage when their champion joins the political establishment in betraying them.

I have three suggestions.

First, let’s make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get near the Oval Office. This is a primary national interest.

Second, let’s not demonize those who follow Trump. He has manipulated and exploited them. Their bigotry is despicable. But more than anything else, they are broken, the inevitable consequences of a broken system – a system deliberately undermined by the wealthy few, not broken by people of color or immigrants.

Third, let’s make sure voter fraud, voter suppression and Election Day tricks are seen, documented, pursued immediately, and kept from calling the election into question. Now is the time for a fair and honest election.

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Sick candidate, but real issues

By Tom Ehrich

We had a bully at my elementary school. His dad was thought to be a bully, too. We suspected that being beaten at home made our classmate cruel at school. Hard to say, no one wanted to get close enough to him to find out.

I hope Joey got his life together, escaping his father and whatever abuse drove him to cruelty. It is painful to watch bullies remain bullies well into adulthood. They become more deft at hurting people but never move beyond the lonely, ego-crushing experiences of childhood. They find meaning and safety in crushing the egos of whomever they meet, even their families and colleagues.

Many wonder what sickness drives Donald Trump. Some see strong indicators of narcissism, perhaps leading to psychopathic behavior. That is a tragic diagnosis, if true, because narcissism is a personality disorder from which one doesn’t recover. The narcissist can learn to function, but should never be put in charge of anything.

Some see him as a playground bully who just never grew up. Some see him as an entitled rich kid who was taught to believe in getting his way at all costs. Some see him as a pathological liar and cheat.

The diagnoses go on and on, many little more than armchair psychologizing, but some put forward by serious psychologists who have studied the man with professional skill. But in them all is a widely held belief, even in his own party, that something isn’t normal and right about Trump.

It isn’t his political opinions – those are run-of-mine positions dating back to Reconstruction, the advent of Jim Crow and the Klan, the America First movement, and a centuries-old history of seeing Islam as an enemy of civilization. Even in his fascination with fascism, Trump’s voice is a voice we have heard before. And his ignorance of history, the Constitution, foreign policy and what makes a society tick can be matched by many politicians whom we simply vote down, but don’t question their sanity.

In his relentless need to belittle people, however, Trump suggests a deeper toxicity. When he mocks whatever he finds vulnerable in a person, when he fires off angry messages whenever his thin skin is pricked, when he casually calls for violence against opponents and says he would like to “hit them hard,” when he shows lack of self-control under pressure and a stubborn, childlike refusal to admit error, many see deep pathology.

It is important to separate the GOP’s current positions from the sickness of its leading candidate. The people in their common sense can defeat Trump at the polls. He can go down in flames and resume a failed business career with even greater name recognition. The positions he espouses, however, will remain a living legacy that we must take seriously. The racism in Trump’s taunting is a racism deeply felt in America. After all this time, it hasn’t gone away. The fear of immigrants isn’t going away. Neither is growing alarm over the violence possible, indeed likely, in a heavily armed populace.

The gap between rich and poor is widening. The predatory behavior of financial institutions is worsening. The determination of politicians to take money from the poor and middle class and channel it to the already-wealthy is accelerating. Collapse of basic institutions through under-funding and over-bureaucratizing isn’t going away.

Reasonable people can disagree about these matters. It is tragic that a sick candidate has turned the normal push-pull of democratic politics into a messianic cult. Many who follow him will wonder what to do next when his candidacy fails. They have legitimate concerns. Who will hear them? Or do they need to look for another proto-fascist strongman?

It won’t be enough for Democrats to defeat Trump. They will also need to prepare for healing a broken society. The bully’s mob will need to be brought back into the mainstream. The bad actors who are plundering the nation will need to be held accountable. Eight years of right-wing obstructionism will need to end, preferably through a renewed willingness to do the hard work of governing.

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"Rally of Incompetence"

By Tom Ehrich

Maybe I was wrong. The image I expected from the Party of Trump in Cleveland was something akin to the Nuremberg Rally of 1934 – the so-called “Rally of Will” -- that introduced Nazism to the world.

There is still time for the orange-haired bully to stand alone on stage, to teach blue-blazered Republicans how to do a stiff-armed salute, and to unleash his version of the Nazi brownshirts to do more beating up on black women.

So far, though, the convention has been a “rally of incompetence,” marked by plagiarized speeches, empty seats, delays, fear-mongering by angry B-list politicians and stars, discord among delegates, no-shows by party leaders, and a virtual appearance by the candidate that seemed oddly like the disembodied face of “Big Brother” in “1984.”

Maybe Trump is managing this convention the way he manages his businesses: poorly. And with boundless narcissism and deceit. We’ll see what happens in the final day.

Meanwhile, I’m told that Republicans in Indiana are thrilled to have Gov. Mike Pence taken off their hands. His disastrous first term as governor threatened to drag down the entire ticket in state and local elections.

New Yorkers are reminded why they don’t miss Rudy Giuliani. House Speaker Paul Ryan has discovered what Gov. Chris Christie learned: that all lapdogs end up fighting for scraps. And the nation has seen up close what a white-power insurgency looks like, namely, sad and sour.

Right-wing Christians must be wondering why they hitched their institutional ambitions to a leader who cares nothing for their Savior, for their faith, or for them. They might have gotten their regressive morality into the GOP platform, but, in the end, serving as the off-stage chorus to a narcissist won’t do much for their credibility as people of faith.

If current trends continue, many smaller craft will sink when the big ship T goes down. The “Southern strategy” of Nixon, the heritage of Lincoln and Eisenhower, the assumed right of country-clubbers to rule, the illusion that wealth cares about the little people, nostalgia for the 1950s – all down, all under water, all swept away by reality.

This could change. Trump could benefit from a nightmarish act on the world scene, or he could concoct one, as Hitler did. Even a free people can be stampeded over the cliff if they are frightened enough.

The pathetic drama in Cleveland won’t be the final act of this tragic year in American politics. But I find myself more optimistic about the eventual victory of common sense. The decoded slogan of the Trump movement – “Make America white again” – speaks loudly to a few but repulses the many.

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"Land of the free, home of the brave"

By Tom Ehrich

In our tucked-away corner of the Rondout Valley, west of the Hudson River, it’s all about family on this Fourth of July. That means it’s all about freedom.

Normally we are two. Today we are 11. Each of us is free to move about, to pair up in marriages and partnerships, to have children, and to spend a holiday without any heavy hand oppressing us or any warring armies threatening us.

This freedom isn’t an entitlement; it is a blessing, won hard, defended vigorously, and constantly under threat by extremist forces seeking power and by cagey wealthy seeking more wealth. Use it or lose it: use my freedom, go about freely, speak my mind, stand with those under assault – or else count on losing what I cherish. The forces of darkness never stop, never relent.

My ancestors came to the New World seeking religious freedom. They were happy to find it, not so happy to extend it to others. It took several generations before the rigid Puritans caught this spacious continent’s spirit of freedom, entered more liberal religious traditions, and became the practical builders of towns and enterprises and colleges who saw that freedom and knowledge were essential.

These were brave men and women. They journeyed into one little-known world after another. None was notable for his valor in combat; their valor was to settle land, start new enterprises, and do their part as citizens, including serve in the nation’s wars.

To me, the National Anthem’s words “the land of the free and the home of the brave” mean something very specific. They mean the freedom to be whatever one can manage to be, with no arbitrary constraints. They mean the bravery of the responsible citizen. They mean the bravery that it takes to form marriages and to start families in uncertain times. They mean a love of freedom that insists on others being free, as well, and a foundational bravery that dares to live as a free and self-sacrificial citizen.

It worries me that so many of my fellow Americans are frightened and willing to sacrifice some or all of their freedom just to feel safe. It worries me that so many are willing to deny freedom to certain others. It worries that so many are retreating into the cowardice of bigotry, jingoism and isolationism.

How could “the land of the free and home of the brave” become a land of the frightened mob and the coward? Surely we can do better than this. I pray for America, because we have been entrusted with something that people everywhere yearn to have: freedom, self-respect, duty. When we honor this trust, hope resounds in every land.

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Dealing with powerlessness: strongman or solidarity

By Tom Ehrich

Once the two candidates have exhausted their insults and snark, they might turn their campaigns to the issues.

The orange-haired bully, however, knows little about the issues and comes across as an empty suit. Hillary Clinton knows too much about the issues and comes across as a know-it-all. Knowing too much is far preferable to knowing nothing, of course, so if the presidential election focuses on issues, we can expect to hear bombast from the Republican suit and deft rejoinders from the Democrat.

But an issues-orientation won’t go deep enough. For the larger question has to do with what form of government can deal effectively with the spread of powerlessness, a contagion emanating from the gross raids on wealth and power by the privileged few.

This election is being fed by negative feelings: stress, financial insecurity, fear, anger, xenophobia, religious victimization, wounds from discrimination, helpless rage against predatory wealth.

This isn’t an aspirational moment, in which people are imagining what great things ought to happen next, or how to position their lives for opportunities, how to build a nation, a city or a dam. It isn’t about “possibility thinking” or any movements of uplift. It isn’t about improving the lot of the have nots.

It is a time of grievance, often expressed as whining. It is a time when people feel victimized by powerful forces, by privilege, by other races, by an unfair system. Some see a racial hand pushing them down, some see a gender hand, and some see greedy elites.

The common element is powerlessness. The political question, then, is what can be done about powerlessness.

In effect, the orange-haired bully is stepping up as the classic “strongman.” Elect me, he says, and I will make things right for you. Cede your power to me, and I will punish those forces holding you down, even if I have to do it alone. Make me the boss, and all will be well.

Hillary Clinton speaks from the pulpit of solidarity. It’s the ”occupy” movement all over again. It’s the energy of “sisterhood,” now broadened to embrace men: if we hang together and don’t allow power to pick us off and divide us, we can make things happen. We will be as smart as we need to be, not limit our smarts to what our opponents can accept. People are trusted to work together for a common good.

The strongman approach speaks deeply to some people, especially to people who have an authoritarian bent. But this is much more a solidarity moment in American life. Look at the aftermath of the Orlando shootings. The bully tried to make it about him. Clinton said little, leaving oxygen in the room for the people. They, in turn, rallied around the gay community, rallied around Orlando -- an entire planeload of passengers offering sympathy to the grandmother of one victim, legions showing up for Pride marches, preachers preaching words of hope to the oppressed. People rallied around gun-control with a moral potency that might not defeat the NRA in Congress but has claimed the visuals. Democrats sitting-in on the House floor carries much more electoral weight than one more photo of white men buying assault rifles.

Strongman systems never work. They turn despotic. The strongman cannot deliver on his promises, and in any event, he abandons the promises as soon as he gets the power. The strongman system turns corrupt and cruel. Witness fascism in the 20th Century. Count how many immigrants came here to get away from corrupt strongman systems in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Gaze upon the sorry spectacle of Russian strongman Putin, as well as the the sordid realities in world soccer and strongman-led religion.

Pope Francis has appeal partly because he doesn’t pretend to be the strongman. Although the occupy movement didn’t have enough leadership to sustain momentum, its instinct to seek horizontal leadership, rather than hierarchical, seemed spot on. Business and industry are moving away from strongman command-and-control systems. Look how even the loftiest tech giants work from desks set among the rank and file. Even though the military still has an ethos of top-down discipline, action in the field tends to follow the solidarity, horizontal model.

In effect, the strange candidacy of the orange-haired bully is reminding us why strongman systems have fallen out of favor. The would-be strongman simply isn’t smart and capable enough to pull it off, nor can he be trusted to consider any interests but his own. The would-be strongman is an advertisement against his own cause.

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Salute to dads

By Tom Ehrich

As a son, a father and a grandfather, I want to salute the dads.

I know I am grateful for the father who raised me, loved me, and showed me what it means to be a man, a husband and a father. Like many in his World War Two generation, he cared deeply for his country, for his community, for his church, and most of all, for his family.

I burst with pride when, as a boy, I helped him move his business to a new location. And when I walked home from school on Election Day and found him doing his biennial duty as a poll worker, caring for democracy. And when I stood beside him in church to sing his favorite hymn, “O God, our help in ages past.”

I burst with pride also at the lives of my three sons. Like many fathers, I never knew if I was doing enough for them. I know I tried to teach them important life skills: reading, writing, fielding grounders, respecting women, driving, using basic tools, working hard, and being honest.

They are extraordinary young men. They make the world better.

And now two of the three are fathers! I love watching them in action. They get it. The third will, too. The most important parts of being a father? Loving their kids’ mother. Loving the kids. And being present.

I know that many children are ambivalent about their fathers. Many fathers are ambivalent about being dads. It’s a challenging role. To some extent, the mounting dysfunctions of our society take fathers as their first casualty.

On Fathers Day, I celebrate all of the men who are trying their best.

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no hiding from the darkness

By Tom Ehrich

Grief overflows in some quarters, and glee in others. Some leaders respond with compassion and tenderness to the loss of 49 lives, other leaders crow and feast on tragedy.

Even on my quiet country road, I sense a coarsening, worsening and collapsing of the public square. Right-wing extremists cannot “pause for death,” as Emily Dickinson wrote. They bully and excoriate without remorse. Even more gays need to die, they say. No more Muslims in America. Put a firearm into every hand. That alone, plus a strongman at the helm, will keep us safe.

Insanity rises, so loud and relentless that it comes to seem normal. Posturing is mistaken for wisdom, and cruelty for strength. Blame the victims, blame opponents, divert attention from actual causes. Hide the truth in vitriol.

We are witnessing combustion of an unprecedented sort. If it loses, another strongman will step forward, one who isn’t so patently odious as the orange-haired bully. If it wins, our nation could be lost for decades to come. When the stupid, cruel and blind get power, they don’t suddenly develop minds, souls and wisdom. They take up arms and start knocking on doors.

It is tempting to say, "They won’t get to me. On my country road, we are safe. Nothing changes here." That is delusional. As my friend Eric Gurvis wrote for Fresh Day magazine, the hangman eventually gets to everyone. “First the alien, then the Jew,” and then you and me.

When darkness covers the land, it covers all of the land, not just selected portions where “they” reside. Even those shouting loudly for the strongman will find themselves in shadows.

Citizens of the light must push back. Write back, post back, speak back, demonstrate back, vote back – do whatever we can do to “call to mind the deeds of the Lord” and to remember what God wants. That isn’t religious posturing. That is reality. God is God, and the God whose “mighty deeds” redeemed Israel is the same God who healed the blind and broken, the same God who faced down avaricious Church prelates, the same God who brought freedom to slaves and dignity to the lost.

When a smug pastor in Sacramento celebrates the slaughter of gays, that isn’t God speaking. That is the darkness. When the lieutenant governor of Texas tweets bigotry, that isn’t leadership speaking. That is the darkness. When the orange-haired bully accepts “congrats” for blaming Muslims, that isn’t America speaking. That is the darkness.

We counter the darkness by speaking in the light and for the light. There are no safe country roads where we can hide. There is only God’s light.

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Report from the Stone Ridge (NY) Library Fair

By Tom Ehrich

Such an array. All my favorite authors, in hardcover, $2 each – first five books, $10, then five more, another $10.

When it came time for our duty as cleanup helpers, a coordinator said, “Take whatever books you want.” It was a perk of helping at the Stone Ridge (NY) Library Fair.

So I selected another ten books. We will come back on Sunday to help with final cleanup and take home even more. Maybe I will locate that history of Paris in the 19th Century by David McCullough.

The key will be to read the books and then give them back to the library to resell at the next fair. But not to store them, not to create bookshelves to house books already read. Not to add more stuff at a time when my wife and I are trying to shed load.

The point is the reading, not the storing. A book opens the mind, enriches awareness, informs and perhaps even inspires. But it is what comes next that matters. What do I do differently because I read this or that book? How do my beliefs and ideas change?

If nothing changes, then storing a printed volume on a shelf is meaningless. And if action, belief or idea does change, then it’s the next book that I need to find.

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Daring to push the envelope

By Tom Ehrich

One of Fresh Day magazine’s regular contributors is planning a six-week renewal leave this summer. For her writing, I urged her to “be as creative as you want to be. Photos, videos, text pieces, poetry -- push the envelope.”

In other words, don’t be hemmed in by precedent, expectation, what she already feels comfortable doing, or self-doubt. As they say in my wife’s home state of New Hampshire, “Live free or die.”

I think of this exchange as I contemplate the impending nomination of Hillary Clinton and her battle with Donald Trump and his politics of bigotry, anger, fear and hatred.

Clinton’s nomination means many things, of course, including her being the first woman nominated by a major party for President. What I find noteworthy, in light of my friend’s leave, is the politics of possibility that Clinton represents.

From what I know of her life and career, she has “pushed the envelope,” not in righteous indignation but in the conviction that she can do anything she sets her mind to do. The fact that something is new to her, or new to her college, state or nation, doesn’t hold her back. She has lost many battles. But she keeps trying. She represents resilience, and resilience is the key to the politics of possibility.

The orange-haired bully, on the other hand, tries to push people around, by tapping their fears (being called a “loser,” for example, or “ugly,” or being threatened with a lawsuit) and taking away their possibilities. He has raised up a mob of angry people, many of them white men, whose cause is to deny possibilities to people of color or immigrants or women or religious outliers. Rather than “live free,” they want to live small, live angry, live in chains of self-perceived rightness. They would rather take away someone else’s freedom than risk exercising their own.

Trump is clearly a fragile man, as bullies and narcissists tend to be, without resilience. The saying about him is, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” He cannot bear to see the “loser” in his own business resume, or the shallowness of his dancing on third as he waits to be driven home, and he clearly doesn’t care that his pitch to frustrated white men aims at the wrong targets and will do nothing for them if he wins. Maybe he’ll just saunter on home and dare the umpire to call him out.

For better or worse, this nation was founded on possibilities. People believed it was possible to set aside monarchy and to have a free nation. They believed they could educate all men and, later, all women. They came to believe that all should be free – a possibility never tried on the face of the earth – and that all should participate in self-governance. They believed in open borders and new possibilities for the world’s losers. They believed in inventions, vaccines, massive dams, bridges, towers, great ideas, cures once thought impossible.

Yes, every possibility was resisted – often by the same narrow thinking that Trump is manifesting. Every possibility had detractors proving it wrong – until it worked. Some possibilities, like freedom and self-governance, took tragically long to come about – until they did come about.

Yes, some possibilities cost money, and that money has to come from a rearranging of benefits and privileges. Those who think they will lose in that rearranging push back. That’s understandable and can be dealt with in the normal push-pull of politics. What Trump has pursued, however, isn’t the cost question, but the darker question, Does this person even deserve possibilities? In Trump’s world, entire categories have no right to embrace possibilities or enjoy the freedom that possibilities represent. They don’t belong.

After a lifetime of successes and failures, miscues and mishaps, and bold service, Clinton hasn’t retreated into fearful bitterness. For all her scars, she continues to believe in possibilities, both for herself and for the nation she has served. She has endured much of the worst that a male-centered society can do to a woman, including the misdeeds of her own husband. She has been marginalized and patronized. But those setbacks haven’t hemmed her in or filled her with self-doubt. She is an inspiring model for many women who have experienced the same.

She is also an inspiring model to progressives like myself. I have been appalled by the rancid ranting of right-wing religion, right-wing politicians and now the mobs threatening violence if they lose. I have worked at staying active in the public square. Clinton’s resilience makes me treasure my own.

So I say to all of us, let’s push the envelope. Let’s be all that we can be. Let’s believe in a land of possibilities. Let’s live free.

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Time for the center to speak out

Blogpost 060616

By Tom Ehrich

Here’s what we know so far:

Passions are running high in American politics. If this keeps up, even the quiet center might be drawn forth.

The right-wing will lash out at anyone who doesn’t accept the premises of their extremism. Voicing opinion as opinion and not as revealed truth, for example, will draw fire. So will trying to see the nuances of an issue or a person. So will trying to insist on respect both for oneself and for the other. Extremists want nothing to do with nuances and respect. Self-restraint is seen as weak.

Exposing lies will be a full-time job for modern journalism. Schlock pubs will peddle their venom. But increasingly, people with any degree of seriousness will listen for responsible voices who make an effort to sort, sift, discover, verify, fact-check, and do actual news-reporting.

That said, here is my advice to centrists who decide to venture into the fray:

First, welcome! It has long been said that the nation cannot stand if only the extremes have voice. The center must stand up, speak out, risk it all.

Second, your opinion matters. All opinions matter. The loud might have gotten to the microphone first, but the nation needs your voice, too. Take your turn, and don’t let anyone stop you from speaking. Yes, it’s dangerous poking your head out, but it’s far more dangerous to let the extremists win.

Third, remember that this presidential election isn’t about gender, style, physical appearance, hairdos, or likability. It’s about substance: issues, personal character, experience, fitness for the job, personal maturity. These are what we should be discussing. Democracy itself is at stake, not style points.

Fourth, don’t buy into definitions of “other.” Whether or not a judge is “Mexican,” or a Hoosier with Mexican parents, is irrelevant. Even if he were just sworn in as a citizen the day before he was sworn in as a judge, he is an American now and a sitting judge. Lumping all dark-skinned people into one category, or all immigrants into a single category, is sheer demagoguery and not consistent with true American values. Don’t buy into the alleged debate about whether a Muslim judger could be fair to a Muslim-hating presidential candidate. That’s a phony issue, intended to divide and demonize.

Fifth, get ready for pushback, some of it vicious and threatening. Extremists on the right will call you names, question everything about you, and, in some instances, will make ominous threats like those voiced by their candidate: We know who you are, we know where you live, and after we win, we will come to get you. Yes, discord has reached that level.

All I can say is thap started forming his followers into a mob, once he began threatening violence and retribution against his foes, once he vowed that his people would riot if he weren’t nominated and, one now presumes, not elected, the normal bounds of democracy were breached. The answer isn’t to mob up and threaten back, or to meet violence with violence. The answer is to engage in democracy – speaking up, voting, seeking truth amid the lies and reality amid the illusions – and then to trust a nation of laws and decency to withstand the right’s insane drive to fascism.

None of this will happen if the center doesn’t mobilize. All is risk at this point. Better to risk the bully’s pushback in the open playground than to risk the pounding on your door after darkness falls.

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Yes, Hillary

By Tom Ehrich

Of the three candidates still running, I think Hillary Clinton would make by far the best President.

She has the most experience in elected office, in executive work, and in working all sides of our complex political world, from domestic policy to foreign affairs. Donald Trump’s ideas are loathsome, his behavior boorish, and his overall competence C-minus. He would be in over his head from day one.

As a public figure for most of her adult life, Clinton has accumulated a heavy backpack of negatives. She would be an easy target for Trump, both as a leader whose record, while extensive, is marred, and, sad to say for what he will make of it, as a woman who isn’t charming, demure, quick with a smile, or a 10.

I appreciate Bernie Sanders’ appeal to the young and to progressives of all ages. I just don’t think he has the experience or temperament to serve in the Oval Office, though he would be far preferable to Trump if the Democratic nomination fell to Sanders.

Truth be told, I would be happier if the Democratic Party nominated a younger and less compromised candidate. But as I say that, I realize I can’t think of anyone to suggest.

My endorsement isn’t exactly hold-my-nose or choose-the-least-objectionable. If Clinton can survive the vicious GOP attack coming her way, a crescendo of the Clinton hatred that has been going on for decades on the right wing, I do think she would make an excellent President. If she were paired with someone like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, I could even get excited.

What I realize, though, is that the office of President is too important for a likeability contest, for campaigning by mob noise, for a say-anything response to issues, or for the simple pseudo-solutions that Trump seems to favor.

I don’t expect any significant leader to have a backpack empty of negatives. No one can lead in this divided nation without stirring vitriol and without needing to make compromises. Our best Presidents had flawed personalities and highly blemished records. Read the biographies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Truman. They all came to the office flawed and had to grow. I don’t see Donald Trump as capable of growth. Narcissism is a personality disorder, not a pathway to effectiveness.

I think Trump would be a disaster as President. He has no qualifications for the office. He makes an effective campaigner, but in office he would know too little, pretend too much, learn nothing, lie about everything, and lead us close to, perhaps into, the fascist state that many seem to want. The fact that he is within striking distance of the Oval Office is frightening. It is a sign of how much maturing and healing our social order needs. We are a broken nation. Electing a man who celebrates that brokenness, in the way a bottom-feeder celebrates a bankruptcy, would be dangerous to the future of democracy.

Clinton is more than an anti-Trump. In her personality, her experience, her dealing with non-stop attacks, and her political intelligence, she presents a positive choice for President.

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A race and patriotism

By Tom Ehrich

To a child growing up in Indianapolis, Memorial Day was a day, not a weekend.

It was the day swimming pools opened for the summer. It was the day people lucky enough to have tickets took fried chicken to the town of Speedway to watch rough-hewn men like AJ Foyt drive fast for 500 miles. The rest of us huddled by radios and listened to Luke Walton and his troops call the “greatest spectacle in racing.” We thrilled when the massive audience sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

It was also a day to remember sacrifice in the nation’s armed conflicts. We were always aware that Indiana lost more young men in the Civil War than any other northern state. Our grandfathers and fathers had served in two world wars. One of my best friends died in Vietnam. Flags for the fallen dotted many cemeteries.

Memorial Day changed, of course. It got bigger, becoming a three-day weekend. The race went national and then global. Southerners fought back with a competing NASCAR event on the same day. Political showmanship replaced some of the simple reverence for sacrifice. Women drivers joined the starting grid of 33, which was good. Entitled scions of wealthy families bought rides and cluttered up the track with bad driving, which was bad.

This weekend in the Hudson River Valley, I suspect I will be the only one in our extended family following the race on ABC-TV and a new radio app. I won’t follow it as closely as before, because TV has made the race about drivers and their personalities, rather than about cars and their technology. As a driver named Parnelli Jones said long ago, the race is about tires, not driving expertise.

For me, the weekend brings into focus the complex phenomenon known as patriotism. Jingoists and blowhards try to make patriotism simple with crowd-stirring slogans like, “America, love it or leave it,” and “Make America great again.” But love of country is never that simple. Those who oppose the wars are loving their country no less than those fighting those wars. The freedom to disagree and to speak one’s mind is more important than the call to get in line. When the nation serves some people extraordinarily well and leaves others gasping and groveling, something is wrong, and only we citizens can fix it.

And we must fix it, because the world needs America to be a good and just nation – not just militarily strong, but morally centered and capable of that ultimate show of strength, namely, sharing and self-sacrifice.

If America joins the scrap-heap of history, it won’t be because we failed to fly enough flags, but because we forgot what the flag represented: a nation founded by flawed men and women whose dream was of freedom, a place where they would be spared monarchs and their wars, a place where freedom from religion promised an end to Europe’s endless religious wars, a place where people mattered, and things could get better. We have never lived up to our ideals, but we have recognized the failure in that and vowed to try harder.

Our national enterprise isn’t done. We have more to do. We have a past worth remembering, but even more, we have a future worth pursuing.

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Just imagine

By Tom Ehrich

One of my favorite scenes in “The West Wing” was when a top reporter declined to pass along a rumor and lectured press secretary “CJ Cregg” about gossip vs. news.

On Saturday, at a neighborhood brunch, I met a man who looked familiar. He said he was an actor and had appeared in TV shows I watch. But I knew his face from that episode of “The West Wing,” where he did a two-episode gig as an ethical reporter.

It took me aback. I just finished my third journey through the seven seasons of Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. As counterpoint to the insanity and ugliness of recent presidential campaigning and Congressional obstructionism, the TV show hints of a better world where politicians compromise and sometimes even the most partisan warriors behave as statesmen.

I realize that I have been willing to set aside the implied rule of the proscenium arch and, like the fan who recently displayed a “Bartlet for President” placard in real time, to imagine these characters as real people. Imagine that much respect for the Constitution, that much collaboration between politicians and the military facing serious global issues, that much self-restraint, that much willingness, as Alan Alda’s “Senator Vinick” showed in declining to challenge a narrow loss, to put the interests of the nation first.

Another favorite scene is when “President Bartlet” dresses down a fundamentalist for misusing the Scripture to justify her bigotry. Imagine a politician of either party daring to cross the religious right wing.

I know full well, of course, that “Josh Lyman” and “Donna Moss” aren’t real people. But over seven seasons, I watched both of them grow, not just fall in love, but grow as persons who could move beyond inherited roles and meet on equal ground. Imagine people honoring the complexities of gender, romance, respect, self-definition, risk, discovery – and not just firing at each other over stereotypes and ideological fault-lines.

I wanted to ask my neighbor what it was like being part of that program. But he didn’t welcome TV talk, and it’s just as well. In the same way, our hostess didn’t want to talk about being a regular on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Some boundaries need to remain, both to preserve performers’ privacy, and to preserve the imagining that good art invites.

I have never wanted to know how much booze Ernest Hemingway drank and what an insecure bully he was. It is enough to read “A clean well-lighted place” and discover it as the perfect short story, and to imagine myself writing crisp sentences in which every word counts.

It takes a special genius for a writer to allow his characters to grow. Most stick with the stick-figures that got them the last big advance. Aaron Sorkin is such a genius. So is the crew writing for “NCIS.” Not many can do it.

But when we see that genius, we come close to understanding God. For of all the attributes ascribed to God, from judgment to wrath to mercy to patience, perhaps the signal attribute is God’s willingness to let us grow. We can evolve. We can get better at this thing called life. We can overcome our origins and our shortcomings. Our hope isn’t that we were born a certain way or, by some baptismal magic, made perfect. Our hope is that we can look at another’s eyes, see the love in them or see the hurt we have caused, and take the risk of saying the next thing with humility.

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