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.



"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.



"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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



My love-hate relationship with Facebook

By Tom Ehrich

Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook.

I love its ease of use, its non-stop menu of links to interesting articles, its views of the world far beyond my rural corner of the Hudson River Valley. I love the way I can skip past what I find nonsensical but others find important – and I love knowing that we all have a place at this table.

At the same time, I hate the knowledge that I am being gamed, that the company behind Facebook is monitoring and processing everything I do in order to monetize my presence. I hate the ads. I hate it that I must pay to “boost a post,” that is, to get more than a handful of people to see it. It’s like fees on airlines. Pay to play, pay again, pay again, and be turned into a commodity.

No, I don’t have an answer as to how something useful could be made available without this commercialization. But I don’t think Facebook is approaching it that way. They aren’t asking, How can we charge enough to make the service available to many? They are asking, By making the service available, how much more money can we make than anyone has ever made online?

The clue is how difficult Facebook makes it to have personal security and reasonable privacy in their social medium. If they were truly out to serve people, they would have us opt in to the ways they monetize and use, instead of making it remarkably difficult to opt out.

As a writer, I use Facebook to make my writings available to anyone who wants to read them. I don’t mind paying for that, since some of my own work is commercial. But having worked hard to build an audience of people who “like” my work, it galls me that only a tiny fraction of those people see what I post. Even when I pay to boost a post, the fraction remains small.

I also recognize that Facebook is a “time suck.” That is my problem, not Facebook’s, of course. The Off button works every time I choose to use it.

But the combination of time-suck-ness and my irritation at being monetized and hit up for fees is leading me to a fresh decision: check Facebook twice a day, and definitely don’t spend the 50 minutes a day that is the new normal for Facebook users.

Will anyone notice my diminished presence? I sincerely doubt it. And that’s the most disheartening thing of all. Facebook isn’t truly a community of friends who look out for each other. It’s a presentation app for getting whatever I want to say in front of at least some eyeballs. If I am absent, untold numbers will fill in for me. But no one will miss me.

The good news is that I will get my time back, to use in whatever way seems more fruitful and rewarding.



See "white male rage" for what it is

By Tom Ehrich

Donald Trump’s emergence as presumptive Republican nominee for president takes me back to my cross-country road trip in the winter of 2015, before the Trump train began rolling.

On my car radio, in news reports and in conversations, I kept hearing what I termed a “white-power insurgency.” White men, and the preachers who enable them, were determined to deny voting rights to people of color, to dial down the entry of immigrants into the American economy, and to deny any public respect to women and homosexuals.

All restraints were off. Civility was gone. This was a declaration of war on people whom this subset hated with a passion that shocked me. I grew up in a racist world, but it was a more genial, if still toxic, racism that simply ignored people of color as worthy of being neighbors. The hatred I heard fifteen months ago was like that of the Ku Klux Klan: aggressive, determined to inflict harm. People were buying firearms for the express purpose of intimidating and shooting people of color, immigrants, women and homosexuals.

As the Trump train gained momentum and undid all pundits’ confident predictions of a return to common sense, the usual trope was “white male rage” caused by decades of economic assault by the wealthy. That assault certainly happened, and it is the underlying factor of economic dislocation. That narrative suggested that “white male rage” was a reasonable response to the behavior of the entitled set. Worrisome, but reasonable.

I think we fool ourselves. This rage is about race. It is about gender. It is about sexuality. It doesn’t have any reasonableness to it. It is hatred, pure and simple, and now it is out in the open. What a large number of people have harbored in the silence of being ignored is now swamping the public square, thanks to the Trump candidacy. The bully in the pulpit has made it legitimate to shout the curses of racial invective, to demonize women, and to declare homosexuals loathsome. Goons acting on Trump’s behalf are pummeling protesters, and social media bullies echoing his disdain are going after every target, even the president’s daughter.

Many are hearing this hatred as if for the first time, and they think it is new and reversible. It isn’t new, and it isn’t reversible. This hatred and the fascist specter that it threatens need to be overwhelmed by superior numbers, named as a clear and present danger to democracy, and dealt with by a legal system and law enforcement system that do their jobs.



Second-seeing can be clearer

By Tom Ehrich

Some things are clearer the second time around.

I can observe my grandchildren and see what I probably missed when their parents were infants, toddlers, potty-trainers, singing the ABC song, learning to draw and to read. I can see that children are amazing: resourceful, inquisitive, fearless, hungry to learn, eager to advance from crawling to walking to jumping, fragile at times and yet wonderfully durable most of the time.

I can observe my pastor and see what I probably missed when I was the pastor dealing with strong-willed lay leaders, demanding members and recalcitrant staff. I can see that patience is good but appreciating the other is better, that people are what they are and my priorities aren’t going to change them, and that getting things right is overrated.

I can observe my sons starting their careers and see what I probably missed when I was the young hotshot with the sterling credentials and limitless potential. I can see that jobs come and go, employers are fickle, a paycheck is good but a loving spouse means more, and when I lie awake wishing I could have done things differently, I rarely wish for more hours at work, but rather more hours with children.

I suppose this second-seeing is what gets labeled “wisdom.” I doubt that it has anything to do with becoming wise. I still make fresh mistakes in real time. It’s just that some situations come around again – like dealing with a two-year-old – and this time I see the challenge differently. I don’t bridle when asked to read “The Berenstain Bears and the Gimmies” yet another time. I can be glad it isn’t Disney pablum, and I can know that this moment of reading to a child on my lap comes and goes quickly.

In politics, I recognize my distaste for both presidential candidates in my party, but having endured the disastrous presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and W, I can see that having a leader who is vaguely, if not always effectually, working for you is better than a leader who is actively working against you.

I have also learned a critical lesson of democracy: the key isn’t that we do whatever it takes to get along and avoid conflict and hard feelings, but that we give free voice to our opinions and name our hopes, and then we learn how to get along with people holding different views.

This learning comes from second seeing: first time around, as it were, I pulled my punches in order to avoid offending. This time I want to speak my mind, and, equally, I want to hear from other people. There is no safety in a pulled punch or a conflict avoided.

The key to second seeing is the humble recognition, as the familiar comes into view again, that I might have misfired the first time. There is no virtue in thinking myself right all along. For one things, it’s a delusion. For another, how can I do better if I am unwilling to learn anything from experience?



"These are my people"

By Tom Ehrich

You’d have the know a life history to understand what Sunday’s “Unsung Heroes” concert in Accord, NY, meant to me.

You’d have to know what I felt growing up middle-class in Indiana – and wanting to be anywhere but there, in the middle and in Indiana. You’d have to know how I pushed myself relentlessly to study hard, to calibrate my life to the opinions of others, and to reach for one brass ring after another, sometimes catching it, sometimes falling short.

You’d have to know the exultation of making it and the frustration of not making it – and the ongoing arithmetic to measure the balance between winning and losing. You’d have to know the constant financial anxiety of living on a clergy salary and of always reaching for more.

You’d have to know the excitement of harnessing my God-given skill of writing to the amazing possibilities of technology and realizing I could stand on my own. And the recent discovery that the simple life – farmhouse, country road, rural backwater, no one singing my praises – is just fine. Better than fine, in fact.

If you knew all that, you would understand why it moved me so deeply to hear local artists singing the stories of family farmers. After interviewing elderly farmers, talented singers told of their “making do,” respecting the land, loving the life they chose, feeling the joy of family life on a farm and the sadness of seeing family die and move away. Not a one had had an easy life, not a one had prospered materially, and yet all felt a sense of purpose and fulfillment that eludes many people and certainly eluded me in my brass-ring-reaching days.

The Rondout Valley of Ulster County was made for farming. The soil in the surrounding Hudson River Valley is said to be among the most fertile in the world. From growing wheat to feed American soldiers in the Revolution to more recent focus on dairy, apples, pears and vegetables for farm markets, this area feeds people.

Like everything within 100 miles of New York City, the Rondout Valley shows all the signs of wealth made in pursuits such as finance, entertainment, and real estate. A striver like myself could feel right at home here. And yet as I looked around the farmers and neighbors attending Sunday’s concert and as I listened to the songs and heard the farmers themselves speak, I realized that “these are my people.” Not because I know a thing about farming, but because I want a life centered in family, the land, and my own creativity. Whether that life yields great wealth has become immaterial to me.

I have sensed this truth for many years, but never yielded to it. I remember spending a week with the Sioux in South Dakota and receiving from them far more than I could give. I remember stopping for lunch east of the reservation at a diner filled with farmers wearing caps labeled “Dekalb” and “John Deere,” and wanting to know this town. I remember visiting my wife’s English-as-a-second-language class in Manhattan and dancing with joy-filled Mexicans, Colombians and Ecuadorians, and thinking, This is New York’s hopeful side.

So I have glimpsed the deeper truth. On Sunday I saw it on full display. This is a good time to be alive.



When politicians behave like actors

By Tom Ehrich

Now we hear that Donald Trump’s first year as a presidential candidate has been just an act. He has been playing a part. Now he’s going to soften that display of bullying, bigotry and rash pronouncements. A new and less offensive act is coming.

That’s what actors do. Within the limits of their acting abilities, they morph from action hero to lost-soul lover to comedian. Beetlejuice becomes Batman becomes Birdman becomes crusading newspaper editor. Sophie becomes Karen becomes Amanda becomes Margaret. If they’re good, the audience goes along with whatever the script writers intended. We pay our money and go home feeling entertained.

The ability to change personas and roles is less attractive when it comes to politicians. We want them to stand for something and to have a core identity that we can examine and find resonant or repellant. It would be foolish for us to expect perfect consistency from politicians. They should be able to change their minds as circumstances and needs change. But taking off one mask and putting on another are unsavory behaviors and dangerous.

Which is the real Donald? The ranting bigot who taught his followers to salute him in a manner reminiscent of Hitler? The insecure narcissist who considered penis size worthy of debate? The failed businessman who insists he was successful? The bully who urged followers to beat protesters?

Or is the new Donald the real Donald? The one who is getting cozy with the GOP establishment and promising to run a closer-to-normal campaign if nominated?

The actor changing characters invites some questions. One, clearly, is whether there is a “real Donald” in there, or just an opportunist who will say anything to get attention. That’s the shapeshifting that parents worry about with insecure adolescents. In trying to win acceptance, they can forget who they are.

Another question: who is writing the script. Up to now Trump has seemed to be winging it, saying whatever came to mind. Not, it seems, mouthing the Koch Brothers’ ugly vision. But the Kochs have the money, and if Trump is playing nice with the party pros, that could mean he will soon be beholden to the odious Kochs.

A third question is for us the voters: we need to weigh our need to be entertained against our duties as citizens. And we need to consider national leaders whose vision begins and ends with our prejudices, anger and fears. A democracy needs responsive leaders who gauge the needs of people. It doesn’t benefit from leaders who figure they can sell anything to us because people are too stupid to care about reality or about their actual interests.

Huge ad buys will accompany the final stretch in this campaign for President. Ads will try to make us forget every horrible thing Trump said along the way to getting nominated (as I am assuming will happen.) Because we cannot bear the thought of a monster in the Oval Office, we will forget that for a year he was behaving like a monster. This instant amnesia works in cinema, but should concern us all in real life.



Yes, "free" elections

By Tom Ehrich

I couldn’t tell if the comment was snarky or serious. I suspected snark – it was Facebook, after all, where casual snarkiness abounds – so I deleted the comment and unfriended the sender. I have had it with rudeness in social media.

But the question bears scrutiny. I had shared my feeling of gratitude at being able to vote in a “free election.” The Facebook commenter said: “Free? Someone is paying for it.”

“Free,” in this context, means without restraint, without having to pay anything for the ballot handed to me (as in the now-outlawed poll tax once used to keep minorities from voting), and without having to satisfy some guard or official that I was going to vote their way.

It’s the usage of “free” that you find in the state motto of my wife’s birth: “Live free or die.” It’s what Patrick Henry shouted, and what millions of people have sacrificed their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to obtain and to defend. It’s “liberty,” “freedom,” “independence.” It’s the opposite of the condition that led immigrants to seek their home in America, and what led early immigrants to revolt against the corrupt monarchy of Great Britain.

It’s the “free” of “free speech” and freedom of religion, of assembly, of the press. It’s the freedom that makes us who we are as a nation. And it’s the freedom that demagogues, religious extremists, terrorists, bigots, corrupt government and corrupt corporations are always threatening to take away from American citizens.

Our freedom does cost them money and power. When workers exercise their freedom to bargain collectively, wages tend to go above management’s desires. When people insist on living freely, it does offend some religious extremists. The corrupt and bigoted would find life a lot easier if people weren’t determined to be free. Corporations would make more money if they could avoid scrutiny for the products they sell and establish monopolies denying freedom of choice. A free people eventually stops believing the lies they tell.

That freedom is ours by right, as guaranteed by the Constitution. The wealthy can live larger than the poor, but they can’t live freer. The poor have as much right to vote, to speak, to assemble and to believe as the wealthy – to the obvious consternation of the wealthy, of course. The wealthy and powerful do everything possible to take away those inconvenient freedoms. Sometimes they get away with it. But in the end, a free people insist on freedom.

Is someone paying for that freedom? My goodness, yes. We pay taxes, we foot the bill for law enforcement, we provide public education to teach citizenship, we maintain armed forces to defend our nation, we pay for media to keep us informed, we provide public funds for elections, we maintain open borders between states, we pay the cost of a national currency and for recognition of state laws. Our system of freedom is enormously expensive.

When I walked freely into the fire barn at Accord, NY, to cast my ballot, I had no impediments whatsoever. That’s the freedom I was extolling. I am also mindful, as I hope we all are mindful, that our freedoms do entail cost. It is a duty and a privilege of citizenship to help bear those costs.



Here's why people don't talk about religion in public

By Tom Ehrich

Why don’t American believers talk more about religion outside their homes and immediate religious circles?

They rarely do so, according to a recent Pew Research Center study cited by The Atlantic. ( Is it because talking about faith in public is considered “impolite”?

I think the answer is a bit darker than politeness. Many religious people tend to be obnoxious about their religion. They see their faith as license to criticize, lament, shun or even condemn other people. Who wants to be on the receiving end of such smugness?

Similarly, many religious people see faith as a matter of their being right. Possessing right-opinion has become their god. Less important is doing the loving, welcoming and self-denial that faith requires. Right-opinion can be a conversation stopper every time.

One person who commented on The Atlantic article said he talks about religion all the time. His message: faith is the province of those with “mental defects.” He seemed surprised that few want to listen to him. This is the obverse of a common coin: “I am right, and you are wrong, and you just need to listen to me.” Not likely.

Religious talk can be dangerous. Literally, hazardous to your safety. Holding a minority viewpoint – like being a Muslim in Christian America or a Christian in a Muslim society or a Jew anywhere – can lead to violence.

Consider Facebook. I tend to be liberal about accepting friend requests. But I have learned to delete fundamentalists – not because we disagree, for I would welcome knowing more about their beliefs, but because their instinct is to attack. When I wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, I could count on attacks emanating from Springfield, IL, Indianapolis, and anywhere in Texas – not just disagreeing, but condemning me as a believer and as a person, questioning my right to speak at all. I learned to ignore such attacks. Dialog, yes, but no responding to the closed-minded.

Besides, lives aren’t transformed by arguments or right-opinion. Lives tend to be changed by direct involvement in mission, in grappling with life, in being loved and listened to.

Instead of talking about religion in public, we should be talking about mission, justice, activities where we are putting our faith in practice. A friend talks so passionately about a feeding ministry in our community that it makes me want to help. If he surrounded that same passion with assertions of his religious excellence, I would walk away.

The answer to the Pew question, it seems to me is this: Common sense wins. When religion leads people to behave obnoxiously and smugly, let’s talk about something else. When religion tends to be self-congratulatory, let’s lament the Mets. God won’t be found in the strutting of the devout. God will be found in the tolerance and the sharing of people seeking love and hope.