Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two Centuries Later, We Need Thoreau More Than Ever

You can also read the article here.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, two hundred years ago today. Why is remembering and honoring Thoreau important? Because America needs him now more than ever. With president Trump waging a relentless war against the environment, Thoreau’s essays, books and the way he lived offer a focus to the resistance movement rippling across America.

“Civil Disobedience,” his 1849 essay and blueprint for radical reform that inspired the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, should be required reading in these difficult times, if only for a new generation of Americans to become acquainted with Thoreau’s ability to speak truth to power for achievable results.

When we read in “Civil Disobedience” that, “There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived,” we in the resistance movement against our current U.S. president are inspired to continue. 

What calamity has Trump wrought so far regarding the environment?

Here’s a partial list:
·        Appointed Scott Pruitt, a bona fide climate change denier, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
·        Proposed a budget that will cut EPA funding by nearly a third, with climate and clean energy programs taking the biggest hits.
·        Opened up federal lands and water for drilling.
·        Instructed the interior department to review dozens of national monuments to see if they can be scrapped to allow access for oil and gas drilling.
·        Lifted a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and is reviewing a ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast.
·        Has also called for drilling in the Arctic national refuge in Alaska.
·        Demanded rapid approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil-carrying pipelines that will violate the rights of Native Americans and expose the environment to potential oil-leaks.

But these pale before the most serious damage Trump has set in motion on the environment and on America’s standing in the world: His declaration on June 1 that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The agreement was reached in 2015 between 195 countries and took effect in November 2016. The goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main reason for global warming, that raises sea levels and unleashes major droughts. Trump, clueless or indifferent to the unimaginable security threat of climate change, has called man-made global warming a hoax. At the recently-concluded G-20 summit in Germany, leaders of 19 of the 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord. Trump was alone in abandoning it.

Thoreau is relevant today because we continue to confirm and learn from his observations. He taught us that treating the environment with respect not only made economic sense, it made even more sense as a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

He was prescient about the concentration of power and America’s shrinking role in the world that could result from misguided policies or policies driven by considerations of commerce alone: “If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.”

Thoreau’s work is also helping scientists monitor global warming, more than 160 years after the publication of his timeless Walden. In that, he was the first climatologist. Thoreau began keeping meticulous notes in 1851 about when and where plants flowered in Concord. By comparing these historical data with the data of the flowering species now, scientists were able to conclude that spring was arriving earlier now than in Thoreau’s time, a direct consequence of global warming.

There are, fortunately, many Thoreauvians among our leaders who have rejected Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and are determined to forge ahead with sustainable and innovative environmental policies.

California governor Jerry Brown, who will be hosting a global summit on climate change in San Francisco in September, released a video message to tens of thousands attending the Global Citizen Festival in Hamburg, site of the G-20 summit. In it he told listeners, “President Trump doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act. It’s time to join together.”

In explaining his motivation to move into the cabin he built by his own labor on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, and where he would spend the next two years, Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Whether or not it is clear to us, future generations of Americans will judge us by what we did to overturn Trump’s policies and the steps we took to address the threat of climate change. Will they indict us for having made a Faustian bargain, as many republicans have, passing our days like the living dead, or will they be grateful for having used our constitutional rights to front the fundamental challenge of our time, the physical well-being of the one and only planet we call home?

The Bard of Walden is waiting, watching, listening.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Americans Confront a Dangerous Crossroads on Independence Day

On the 241st anniversary of America's independence, we find ourselves at a crossroads unlike any other in our history.

Two words sum up the danger that confront us at this crossroads: Donald Trump.

Since he became the president a mere six months ago, a dark curtain has descended on America. We regress with every policy and tweet he hatches in the darkness of his heart and unleashes on the world. The bar for decency, civility and respect for the rule of law sinks lower and lower with every passing day.

Everyone on the planet, including (I am sure) the few dozen or so inhabitants of Internet-enabled Pitcairn Islands, Britain’s smallest colony in the South Pacific populated by the descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty in 1789, have read president Trump’s vicious and misogynistic tweets directed against Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, co-hosts of MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ TV program.

What has stretched the patience of even some of our fellow-Americans willing to give Trump a chance was the bald-faced lie and below-the-belt hit in the president’s tweet: “… how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with psycho Joe, came … to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

It turns out that Mika and Joe did no such thing, as clarified in an article they co-wrote for the Washington Post. Their conclusion: “Donald Trump is not well.”

It also emerged that the president is a blackmailer as well. White House officials have been calling the two hosts for weeks, apparently to kill an unfavorable story the National Enquirer - a tabloid dedicated to sensationalism - was about to run on them. “They said if you call the president up and apologize for your coverage, then he will to pick up the phone and basically spike the story.” (Enquirer owner David Pecker is a dedicated Trump chum.)

The two hosts refused to fold. The Enquirer ran the story as “Morning Joe Sleazy Cheating Scandal,” which turned out to be another damn lie as well.

Trump’s obsession with women, his boast of grabbing women’s private parts, his
past-ownership of the country’s first in-casino strip club called ‘Scores’ when he built the Trump Taj Mahal in 1990, suggest that misogyny runs deep in this man’s vein. Women matter to him only to the extent that they can be quantified as sex objects. If they turn out to be smart, independent and strong-willed, on the other hand, this unprincipled man feels threatened and is compelled to expose his virulent misogyny.

If this were only a character flaw of the rogue president, the damage could perhaps be contained, but it is not. It is the same flaw that is at the root of some of his policies: expansion of the Global Gag Rule that restricts women’s access to comprehensive health care, his elimination of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, his sabotaging of law against gender discrimination in education.

It is the same mindset that is at work in his crude attempt to replace Obamacare with the cruel Senate Health care plan (dubbed “Relief for the Rich Act” by Warren Buffet) that, if it becomes law, will throw 15 million Americans off Medicaid that covers 40 percent of America’s children and essentially leave 22 million Americans without health care over the next decade. It will take about $700 billion from the poor and the middle class and transfer it to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts.

It’s the same mindset that made Trump withdraw for the Paris Climate accord. This will significantly weaken global warming that threatens our very survival. Trump, of course, regards global warming a hoax. It is the same mindset that propels this president to wage a relentless war against the media, as his latest crude video tweet against CNN demonstrates.

We now have a president who revels in his misogyny, who sends current of excitement through his support base because many of these men also look at women as sex objects too, who feel threatened by professional, smart, high-achieving women who will kowtow to no one. Trump speaks to their insecurity, which is why it is so difficult to reason with them.

There was always a toxic subculture of misogyny in America. President Trump has brought this to the surface. He coarsens our culture on a daily basis by attacking our values with his vile instinct and boorish behavior.

With his dangerous policies and roguish rants, Trump tarnishes the image of the United States every day and in every possible way. That is why it is important that on this 4th of July in the year 2017, all of us, irrespective of party, faith and color, resolve to legally, intelligently and vigorously continue our resistance until this scourge is forced from office.

Monday, June 12, 2017

America's Muslim Supporters Outnumber Muslim Haters at Rally in San Jose

You can also read the article here.

On a bright and windy morning last Saturday, Esther and Neal, a middle-aged couple, drove 60 miles from Richmond to San Jose to express their solidarity with Muslim Americans. They were motivated to come after hearing about the rally a group called ACT for America (AforA) were organizing against Sharia Law in the U.S.

“This was really important for us,” said Esther, “to say ‘No’ to the hate mongers. As Jews, we can never forget the holocaust legacy. We have to reach out to our fellow Muslims to make America safer and stronger.”

But the couple, holding up signs that read “Another Jew for Love,’ was also curious to know from me – a Muslim - what percent of Muslim Americans (about 3.3 million, or 1% of the population) wanted Sharia Law (traditional Islamic law) in the U.S.

“I know of no Muslim who wants Sharia Law,” I said. “We love the U.S. Constitution.”

“That’s what we thought,” said Neal.

Bay Area Muslims have been bracing for the anti-Sharia Law protest for weeks. It was the quintessential straw man, a conduit for anti-Muslim hysteria by Islamophobes and White Supremacists emboldened by President Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.

We were tense and stressed as dawn broke but when we showed up at the intersection of Santa Clara and San Jose on Steven’s Creek Boulevard on Saturday, June 10, our fear dissolved and hope filled our hearts. Supporters, brought together by over 130 diverse organizations from all faiths and of all ages, easily outnumbered the AforA protesters - I counted about 40 of them - by at least 20 to 1.

“I am a writer,” said Esther, as we reflected on the sad state of America today riven by divisions, inequality and hatred. I made a mental note of the book she had written.

The sidewalks along Santa Row resounded with chanting. 

“Trump Says: Get Back. We Say: Fight Back!”

“When Muslims are Under Attack, Stand Up and Fight Back!”

“Say It Loud, Say It Clear, Muslims Are Welcome Here!”

Victoria, in her ‘60s and affiliated with the Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, showed me how she had used the malleability of the English language to turn a negative slogan into a positive message. “I saw this poster at an anti-Muslim rally that showed a brick wall on which was written ‘No More Muslims.’ I simply changed it to ‘Know More Muslims!” she said, beaming. 

Abigail, seven, and her two year old brother Theo, conveyed to the rest of America and to the world this message: “Stop the Hatred. Muslims Welcome Here.”

Maureen and Barbara, retired teachers from San Jose, held aloft posters that read “Christians stand up for Muslim Americans,” and “Resist the Right. Stop Racist Attacks.”

For Martin of San Jose, it was a moral imperative to attend the rally in support of Muslims. “We cannot wait for Internment camps. I heard some politicians talk openly for Muslim Internment camps after the Manchester attack.”

A large number of Japanese-Americans, descendants of Internment Camp survivors during WWII, held up signs that stated in bold red letters, “We Stand for Inclusion.” The statements were imprinted on images of the “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” manual that was handed out to their parents and grandparents during their Internment.

Across the street, among the anti-Sharia Law protesters, there was a man with a poster that read “Sharia Law: No. US Constitution: Yes.” I wanted to ask him if he knew of a single Muslim American who wanted to impose Sharia Law on America. But when I checked with a policeman, he wisely advised me not to.

What I noticed was that in this month of Ramadan, fasting Muslim volunteers were distributing water bottles to thirsty people, and that included those rallying against us. Nothing captured for me the spirit of Ramadan more than this simple and poignant gesture.

The posters were pithy and precise. Tara of San Jose: “Honk if you love you Muslim Neighbor.” Honking along Stevens Creek was indeed deafening Saturday morning.

Chris of Palo Alto told me her daughter Michelle, 10, insisted on accompanying her after she heard about the event and wished upon all of us: “Shabbat Shalom. Ramadan Mubarak.” We are also in the midst of the Jewish observance of Sabbath. 

Charles and Tori, members of Showing Up For Racial Justice
 (SURJ), declared, “I Love My Muslim Neighbor.” Jay, of Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Alliance, advised, “Resist Hate.” A San Jose family declared: “We stand with Our Muslim Neighbors,” and implored “Unity.” Tim, of Congress of Resistanceadvised: “Unite to Fight Against Racism and Bigotry.” 

For Steven, what was at stake was nothing less the future of democracy in America. “We cannot accept What Trump is trying to do to America,” he said. “We have to stand up for what we believe in and fight for our values for as long as it takes.”

For Sister Elizabeth, it was to stop the encroachment of what she saw was the unmistakable sign of fascism in America. Her poster said: “In the Name of Humanity, He Refused to Accept a Fascist America.” It showed the image of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, who lost his life at the hand of a White Supremacist in Portland when he came to the defense of two girls, one a Muslim wearing hijab..

After a while I simply began reading the signs for my own edification and inspiration: 

“Muslims for love, peace, diversity, feminism, science and humanity.”

“Jews Stand with Muslims”

“End Terrorism by Not Participating In it”

“Dear Mrs. President: Trust Muslim Women”

“First They Came for the Muslims and I said, Stop Right There!”

Particularly moving for me was the message conveyed by the word “MUSLIM” on the T-shirt of a woman holding a banner with 2 other Americans of “Indivisible San Jose.” She had highlighted “US” in “MUSLIM.” It could stand for “US” as in, we are all in this together, and it could also stand for the United States. I never thought of my faith label that way, and I would have never discovered it if I hadn’t come to the rally. With awe and wonder, I realized that in the most unexpected way, I had redeemed my fasting!

When I returned home that night after performing the special nightly Ramadan prayers called ‘Taraweeh’ at the Evergreen Islamic Center, the images of diversity and inclusion and love and courage still fresh in my mind. It was past midnight. But I had one more thing to do before turning it in. I turned on my laptop, went to Amazon’s website and ordered a book called “Nest,” a book about the power of healing and friendship, by an author named Esther Ehrlich.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ramadan in a World Gone Crazy

You can also read the article here.

Evergreen Islamic Center, San Jose, CA

Today, Saturday, May 27, 2017, is the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam. For Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere, the 30-day period is marked by anywhere from 14 to 16 hours of fasting, during which the throat gets parched and the stomach complains as adherents seek to strengthen their acquaintance with the Divine. 

Because the Islamic calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is based on lunar months, Ramadan advances through the seasons by about 11 days every year. So while Muslims in places like Australia will fast several hours less than us, we will switch times in years to come.

For the more than 3 million Muslims in America, Ramadan this year will be different in one particular way: We will be thinking more deeply about the fate of our country and its direction.

During the presidential campaign, then candidate Trump made no bones about maligning Islam and Muslims. “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims,” he said at a 2015 town hall in New Hampshire. “I think Islam hates us,” he said at another time to the media.

He repeatedly promised to close mosques and create a Muslim registry in America if elected. Within a week of becoming president, he signed an executive order blocking Syrian refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, orders that, for now, remain blocked by the judiciary.

Given the history of his inflammatory rhetoric, I was curious to hear what Trump would say in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the first stop of an overseas tour that also took the president to Israel and the Vatican.

In a speech to more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations and their leaders, Trump asked Muslims to “purge the foot soldiers of evil” from their societies. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he observed. “This is a battle between Good and Evil … We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values.”

This was in the spirit of Ramadan, I thought. I nodded in agreement (because that’s what Muslims like me have been saying all along).

But, then, action speaks louder than words! This is what Trump said in a meeting with the Emir of Qatar before the speech: "One of the things we will discuss is the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment because nobody makes it like the United States."

During his stay, Saudi Arabia reportedly signed an agreement to buy “beautiful” American arms worth $110 billion, arms that is likely go toward the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has yielded untold suffering and allegations of potential war crimes that could ensnare the United States alongside Riyadh. It also threatens to deepen the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunni and Shia, making the Middle East even more volatile.

Bu violence has already erupted. A British Muslim of Libyan descent blew himself up with the sole intention of killing children at a concert in Manchester, killing 22 people, including an eight-year-old. In Egypt, extremist Muslim militants forced Coptic Christian pilgrims from a caravan of buses and killed 28. And in Portland, Oregon, a few hours before Ramadan was to commence, a white supremacist ranting against two Muslim women wearing Hijab on a public bus attacked three good Samaritans who came to their defense, and killed two of them.

It doesn’t look good! The sanctity of Ramadan, for Muslims a month of reflection, charity, restraint, self-discipline and compassion, is threatened by extremists everywhere.

Muslims are required to abstain not only from food and drink in this month but also from such vices as anger, impatience, or arrogance. The food part is relatively easy; it is the cleansing of the heart that is harder, particularly in these troubled times.

And while there is no estimate of what percentage of Muslim adults fasts - because fasting is considered a personal pledge between a believer and God – what is undeniable is that mosque attendance goes up dramatically during Ramadan, its social aspect most evident at ‘Iftar’ (Arabic for ‘breaking the fast’) just after sunset.

At San Jose’s Evergreen Islamic Center, we invite neighbors, co-workers, local politicians, police officers and anyone curious about our faith, to our weekend Iftars. Polls show that most Americans who harbor negative opinions about Muslims have never met one. If people can break bread together, we expect hate and enmity to recede. And it indeed does, based on what we have experienced, despite the occasional hate mail and taunts of “go back home.”

Many of the employers I have encountered, moreover, are aware of the demands Ramadan makes on believers and are sensitive to the needs of their Muslim employees. By the time we complete the special nightly prayers of Ramadan called ‘Taraweeh’, for instance, it is often past midnight. That means that many of us have to do with no more than 4-5 hours of sleep per night during workdays. If you find your Muslim colleagues sleepy or slow during working hours in Ramadan, you will perhaps know why.

Indeed, I have found nothing but empathy from colleagues and co-workers. When I worked in the tech industry, my co-workers avoided eating in my presence and gave me space to offer my afternoon prayers. It’s the same in the college where I now teach, where students sometimes ask me to slow down and conserve my energy while I am trying to explain a difficult concept in, say, algebra.

Ramadan is the believer’s gateway to the ineffable and the transcendent, when Muslims make an effort to pay more attention to the little things around us (which often turn out to be the big things), smile from the heart at friends and strangers, make more charitable donations.

So I find myself focusing this year on Ramadan’s message of hope, its rejection of despair, and the generosity of the average American. What keeps me awake is knowing where violence may erupt and who will fall victim to the nihilism of psychopaths. We will pray and be alert, to the extent that it is possible, so that no one who claims to be a Muslim can give Ramadan a black eye by engaging in violence and killing innocents.