Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys – Tom Rossi

As I’ve listened to the debates about many issues in our country, most especially the “stand your ground” laws that have proliferated like mad and become so controversial after George Zimmerman chased down and shot Trayvon Martin, one thing has become increasingly clear: in the conservative mind (as in old westerns and their modern counterparts) there are good guys, and there are bad guys.

This appears to be the idea behind many Republican “principles,” the idea that people are either good or bad with little in between. And along with that comes the equally ridiculous idea that other “good” people will instantly be able to tell who is who in a conflict.

Let’s paint a scenario: You’re in a bar in Repubofantasyville, minding our own business (as “good” people always do), drinking American beer, and packing heat. All of a sudden, there is some shouting in the next room. You walk in with gun drawn, like any responsible person would do, and you find two guys in the process of drawing their own guns. It’s clear that each intends to shoot the other. So who do you shoot?

In Repubofantasyville, the good guy will, of course, be wearing a white hat, while the bad guy wears a black hat. Shoot the black hat, justice has been served, end of story. But what if it isn’t so obvious? The idea behind “stand your ground” is that, with everybody armed to the teeth, no one will try to commit a crime because of the fear of being shot.

But this particular sub-fantasy ignores passion. Sometimes, cooler heads don’t prevail and a fight breaks out. It two guys get into an argument and each knows the other has a gun, won’t each be more likely to pull their gun? It would be illogical to wait for a clearly wrong, hot-headed and mentally deficient opponent to draw his gun first. So each knows he has to be first. And if one sees the other going for his gun, the logical thing to do is to pull the trigger – first.

And there you are, having walked in on this situation and intending to prevent the bad guy from shooting the good guy. So who do you shoot?

It’s all too easy to construct scenarios where “stand your ground” laws would be (and are now) misused, abused, and just difficult to interpret – as in the Trayvon Martin shooting. But this entire idea that people are either good or bad is without merit.

If there ever have been purely good people on this planet, they have been few and far between. Almost everybody has acted (or at least thought) selfishly at some point, putting his or her own needs or wants ahead of someone else’s. Speeding in a car, jaywalking, cheating just a little bit on taxes, telling little white lies… these are all imperfections. And the same goes for the other side of this fantasy. There have been very few, percentage-wise people who could be called purely bad.

Most people are somewhere in between. Most people live decent lives but not perfect. And there is no line to cross over from good to bad, there’s only a gradient. This is human nature. We are complex beings and our social interactions are complex, as well. Policies based on simplistic interpretations of reality are doomed to fail.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Life After West Wing? Post July 4th Blues

My wife has been an integral part of everything wonderful in my life. But what has she done now? Knowing I am a recovering addict of West Wing, she had no right to send me the following clip. Is anyone watching Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin new series, The Newsroom? How is it? Please share in the comments below for those of us who live without HBO. 

Warning: There is explicit language in the clip.

Is this a good time to mention that I think we watch way too much TV?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Why It Has To Be Fiction

Last month, I was invited to address a very politically aware audience about my novel, The Accidental Activist. I spent considerable time describing the McDonalds’ libel trial that transpired in London throughout the 1990’s This is the the court case upon which The Accidental Activist is based.

I was deeply inspired by the trial at the time and meticulously researchedMcLibelas it became known. My fictional timeline corresponds exactly with the real trial and many of the events in The Accidental Activist parallel what transpired in the real court case. In fact, many of the more infamous quotes from real-life witnesses just happened to find their way into the mouths of my characters.

I allocated a fair part of my talk to the idea of writing for social justice, to help empower people to create a better world. This is a consistent theme throughout my books, and here on Left Coast Voices – so it begged someone to ask the question: Why fiction?

My answer was not very impressive. I mumbled that John Vidal, a journalist for The Guardian in the UK, had done a great job of writing the definitive book on the case and even had a copy on hand to show them.

But there is more. I believe fiction allows the writer to reach more people and on a deeper level than non-fiction. We open ourselves to the emotions of the characters, the smell of the place, the textures of color, food, or wine. We become invested in their challenges.

But most significantly, we read fiction to identify with the characters, particularly the protagonists. Often we align through gender, life experience, fears, or loves. I have heard from women who were deeply affected by my character Suzie’s ideological drive for a better world. Men can understand how Matt felt driven to step outside his comfort zone and find a way to defend his woman.

If we can create a bond between character and reader, we open the opportunity for the reader to create an environment in which to undergo a similar transformation in their own life.

I believe relationships are what drive people to step outside their safe space. I believe people were able to relate to then-Senator Obama’s (and/or Michelle’s) drive for a better America, for change we can believe in. This was what motivated so many to get involved and head to the polls four years ago and, I hope, what ultimately will bring them out to vote again in November.

When we relate to a person we admire, whether in fact or fiction, we consider on a conscious or subconscious level whether we can emulate that person and make a similar, courageous decision. Perhaps this will empower us to believe that our actions can create a better world.

Have you ever been inspired by a book to take action? Has a fictional character ever helped you change your life? If so, please share in the comments below.

Good Writing,

Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Genocide of the Middleclass – Roger Ingalls

James Carville has just released a new book (It’s the Middle Class, Stupid) and the President is now shaping his re-election rhetoric around helping the middleclass so I feel it is prudent to repost (with edits) one of my earlier articles about the subject.

It is mind-boggling that so many Americans have a god-like fascination with Ronald Reagan. This is the man who set in motion the financial destruction of the middleclass. Unbelievably, a significant portion of Middle America still loves the man. Why? Is it some sort of Battered Wife Syndrome  or is the conservative middleclass too embarrassed to admit that they were duped by the Republican Party?

But, here we are, repeating stupidity. Instead of trying to reverse Reaganomics, conservatives are still trying to enhance it; more tax cuts for the rich and for corporations, more union busting, deregulation and privatization of government programs.

To increase our understanding, let’s review history: today, many Americans believe that middleclass society magically appeared with the birth of our nation and grew over time. This is not true. With the market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, the country fell into economic chaos and floundered under Republican President Herbert Hoover. Prior to that, there were a few rich people, a lot of poor folk and a handful of in-betweeners. Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in March of 1933, quickly launched new legislation and executive orders that would become known as the New Deal.

The New Deal increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans, increased corporate taxes, regulated banks and Wall Street, created government programs (social security, unemployment insurance and minimum wage), and created pro-union alliances. FDR’s policies pulled our Nation out of the depression and gave rise to Middle America. In less than a decade, the middleclass would grow to become the largest demographic in the country and the envy of the world—The Great American Middleclass.

From the late 30s through the late 70s America prospered, the Middleclass would live comfortably and we became the undisputed world power. In steps the B-movie cowboy with his traveling show of Reaganomites and the genocide begins. Middle America was forced to save less just to maintain living standards, eventually leading to the necessity of financing their way of life. Wealth transferred from the Middleclass to banks, corporations, the rich got richer and this trend continues today. Wealth disparity now sits at the largest level since the robber-baron days of the late 1800s through the 1920s.

Americans need to act by educating ourselves on what policies actually work based on historic proof. We must not listen to money-influenced mainstream media. We must not let ourselves get polarized (against each other) through agenda promoted by today’s corporate-financed politicians—it’s their tactic to divide and conquer.

Genocide of the Middleclass, begun by Ronald Reagan, must stop. Hopefully the influential power of James Carville will help bring attention to proper change. And maybe, just maybe, the President’s renewed commitment to the middleclass is more than the normal lip-service.

Robbing the Next Generation – Childhood Obesity

There is a certain sense of irony writing a blog post about obesity on this day – seven-eleven – but here we go. My previous post on this topic ruffled some feathers, not least among those who are struggling with overweight and its repercussions. I know it is a sensitive topic and I have no intention of belittling anyone or their health challenges. I applaud anyone who has the strength to take steps to turn things around and am full of admiration for those I see turning up at my gym and pushing themselves daily on the cardio and other machines. 

But obesity is a growing issue in this country and we must address it. Nothing is as difficult as seeing children already walking such  a path at a young age. Parents have so much to struggle with today: the intense demands of homework, the lure of screens, the danger of letting their children out in the streets. All this in addition to the strains of a full time job and often only one parent in the picture. It is hard to find the strength to say no too often, hard to find the energy to cook a healthy meal that doesn’t resemble what children are bombarded with on TV and elsewhere by clowns.

First Lady, Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity turned 18 months earlier this week. Not quite the terrible twos yet, but the First Lady seems to know what she is up against. The skeptics have made sure she knows, claiming that the money poured into advertising and promotion by the huge multinationals that run the food and agriculture industry might make promises but won’t risk their profit margins.

But Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, is one of many who disagrees and claims that Mrs. Obama “has been a spark plug, raising awareness about the potential future of the U.S. as a nation of fat, unhealthy people unless the trend is reversed.” She acknowledges that Mrs. Obama has been doing it in ways that health food advocates can’t.

She has addressed law makers at every level, school groups, food producer and other constituencies, urging more bike paths and playgrounds, to serve healthier school lunches, and to produce and sell healthier food. Mrs. Obama has visited schools across the country to encourage initiatives such as  fruit and vegetable gardens, healthy options for school lunches, and participating in exercise clinics with children.

Most impressive in my opinion (and it is all impressive), is her work advocating at food manufacturers, beverage makers and stores. A little corner store you might have heard of, Walmart, pledged to reformulate thousands of its store-brand products to reduce sodium, sugar and fat, and provide incentives to its suppliers to do the same. Walmart has also pledged to cut its prices for  fresh fruit and vegetables, and develop a platform that clearly identifies healthier choices. This is a big player move. Walmart’s grocery business accounts for about 15%  of the U.S. grocery industry.

“We are seeing a fundamental shift in our national conversation about how we make and sell food,” Mrs. Obama said when she addressed Walmart executives at the beginning of the year. “That’s something that wasn’t happening just a year ago.”

People get worked up about children, whether they are their own or not. We have saddled the next generation with an enormous debt and a crashing environment. Sometimes these topics seem to massive for us to do anything about it and we feel disempowered. 

But to create a healthy diet and lifestyle for our children is something we can grasp. We can run around with them at the park instead of reaching for Netflix. We can volunteer at our local school vegetable garden, and we can think about what we serve at the dinner table. There is an advert on the radio at the moment urging us to give our children water or fruit juice rather than a can of sugar. We don’t, perhaps shouldn’t, make radical changes all at once, but the next generation’s journey begins with small first steps.

Thank you, Mrs. Obama. Now excuse me if I go and play soccer with my sons.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

The Best Damn Sock Story You’ll Ever Read – Tom Rossi

There are many reasons that the economists trusted by both Democratic and Republican administrations in our country (over the last several decades) have built a kind of dream world where numbers on calculators and the super-rich thrive while the rest of us slide, in starts and fits, into the poor house. One fun example is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and what’s known as the “quality bias.”

I’m sure everyone realizes that the CPI has risen steadily over the last 60 years. The CPI is an indication of what consumers have to spend to obtain what the government considers sort of a representative basket of necessities such as food, clothing and several other commodities. Increases in the CPI show how much more it costs to live in the present time versus some time in the past.

But economists often argue that the CPI does not pay enough attention to changes in the quality of the items in that “basket.” In some cases, they are right. Take cars, for example: even the cheapest new car will almost certainly outlast a comparable car from the 1970’s, and it will most likely require a lot less maintenance and upkeep.

But economists and many policy makers assume that this applies to everything, and that simply is not the case. Take socks, for example. I have, over the past few years, bought two sets of Champion and one set of Adidas ankle length socks from Costco. The Champion socks changed, between my two purchases, and then were ditched by Costco in favor of the Adidas.

Costco usually has pretty good stuff. And while I’m always embarrassed for buying anything there instead of a local, “mom and pop” type store, I sometimes give in when a relative with a membership wants me to tag along.

The sock progression went like this: I bought the first set of Champion socks about 6 years ago. They sort of gradually deteriorated, much as I would expect socks to do. The last pair out of this set is still in rotation in my sock drawer. Since the first of them did get holes in the bottom of the heel after about 1 1/2 years, I bought some more, even though they had changed in style just a little. This second batch started to get holes within six months, but I still have one good pair left.

So, to make up for the new deficiency, I bought what Costco had to offer, the Adidas socks. These lasted a few months and then all formed holes, almost simultaneously, in much less than a year. However, one or two of them is still hanging on, with a really thin layer of material on the heel where a hole is trying to form.

This provides some evidence as to what has happened to the quality of socks over the past few years as manufacturing has evacuated the United States more and more and landed in China and other faraway nations, all while companies have searched high and low for ways to cut corners in materials and labor costs.

The socks I bought six years ago, the socks I bought three years ago, and the socks I bought one year ago have all basically, finally died in the last six months. That means that the first ones lasted over 5 years and the newer socks suck in comparison.

And socks aren’t the only things. Gradually, almost all metal has been replaced by plastic. Almost all nuts and bolts have been replaces by plastic fasteners that get brittle and break and are impossible to replace. These days, you feel lucky if a small appliance like a toaster or a vacuum cleaner or a microwave last three years.

If you look at the ratings of various products on Amazon.com, you get the idea that 5 to 10 percent of new products are DOA – Dead On Arrival, and have to be sent back. And even though I’ve said that cars are the exception, there are still plenty of lemons that come off the lot and go right back into the shop.

The corporate model predictably leads to this. The automotive industry is one of the few where things still work the way they are supposed to work – if you make an inferior product, word spreads and you are punished. With so many other products, a brand enters an elite, dominant group, and then it hardly matters. You can put whatever crap out there you want to and people still buy it because there are so few choices and they all follow the same philosophies.

I recently bought some Hanes socks. We’ll see.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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The Economic Burden of Overweight

My plane was delayed. I sat exhausted in the airport in Texas, sipping a coffee. There was a line of customers forming into the McDonalds about 30 feet to my left. I began to doze. In the haze of fatigue everything blurs a bit. It suddenly felt as though I was on a different planet (I had just seen the movie Planet 51 with my boys). People weren’t green, but they were…well huge.

People walked past me in families or groups of four or six, almost all seriously overweight. I do not know where the line crosses between overweight and obese. Paul Zane Pilzner once defined it as people who no longer control their weight or lifestyle. This is not an anti-obesity post. I respect anyone who is taking steps to ensure their body is healthy, but i fear the repercussions that we all face.

I remember my first trips to the US. Admittedly, they were to California and the beach, surf, and multiple gyms beguiled me. Now not everyone in California is healthy by any means, but that seemed to be the perception.

Last Wednesday, I wrote the first part of a post suggesting that a sustainable planet needed changes in what we dish onto our plates and into our bodies. Today, I want to propose that there is a direct correlation between our health and economy.

The U.S. budget is just over $15 trillion (as is our debt apparently). In 2009, health care costs reached $2.5 trillion—nearly 17 percent of the GDP – and Paul Zane Pilzner suggests that there is a further $1 trillion dollars in the Wellness industry (‘health’ food, fitness, vitamins, and other therapies).

Gallup estimates that we lost over $153 million in lost productivity. But enough with the statistics. I don’t really think that anyone questions the fact that an unhealthy society cannot be an economically successful company. In fact, how many countries where disease and ill health are prevalent are doing well economically? On the contrary, if you look at the more successful nations (Scandinavian and Japan), they score highly on both the economic and health categories.

The question that I am stuck with, and I think at the core of Obamacare, is how much can the government intervene in how people choose to live their lives? There a re two points that I feel we need to realize:

1) When more that half the nation are overweight, it directly impacts everyone’s finances.

2) I don’t believe these people are making choices or feel that they can turn their lives around.

The battle against harmful transfats in fast food is an example of how we can make the necessary changes.  I applaud First Lady Michelle Obama, who has taken on the fight against childhood obesity.

We have messed up the economy for our children and their children. Perhaps we can be more of service to them if we can educate them to live a healthy and productive lifestyle. And this just might right some economic wrongs we have inflicted on them as well. 

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Real Men Don’t Cry

This is how we are brought up. Men used to wander around with a club, bringing down mammoths and dragging a female back to the cave. We have progressed a bit since then, what with vegetarianism and on-line dating, but there are certain mores that we don’t expect to cross. 

I’ve done the ‘man’ things – play and watch sports, hit the gym, enjoy beer, fish, served in a combat unit, wooed a beautiful woman, and fathered two wonderful boys. I have a good job and plenty of friends.

Last month, my eldest son had his bar mitzvah and put on a flawless display of teaching, chanting, and schmoozing. He stood before our community and talked about the need to educate and not punish, to pursue social justice, and his desire to make the world a better place.

He was great and I am very proud of him. He worked very hard for two years to reach the level in which he could achieve this. Then it was time for his parents to bless him.

My wife won the toss (soccer reference) and chose to go first, knowing that I am confidant and used to standing before an audience and speaking into a microphone. Her blessing was modest, genuine and heartfelt, a reflection of her as a mother, wife and friend.

Over the hump, right? Wrong. I had written my blessing for him a while ago. I told him meaningful the project we had pursued together (we wrote the first Wycaan Master novel together) and then imparted how I saw him as our coming-of-age protagonist. And then I choked up…and cried. When I stopped and stole a sip of his water bottle, he leaned over and gave me a hug.

The first thing that went through my mind was shock. I hadn’t expected this, even though I have been known to cry at a Simpson’s episode (another story). I actually wasn’t embarrassed for myself: I was embarrassed for him. I struggled through and he still talks to me. Moreover, many people came up to me and gave me loving reinforcement.

But it was the comments from the men that I remember. There were some who admitted to shedding a tear themselves, others who said that I had done something they would like to be able to do. Some admitted they could never allow their mask to come down like that in public, or maybe any time. 

In the struggle for equal rights between the sexes, we have seen a necessary push for women – equal opportunities, equal pay, and legal protections. All this stems from societal mores that favored men and allowed us to exercise a ‘power over’ that is unacceptable in a modern society.

But we, as men pay a price. Most of us still shoulder most of the burden of material provision, or at least feel we should even when our partners are better qualified and can pursue better jobs. We are mostly the warriors from defending our country to our family,

We all respected George Bush for shedding tears at 9/11 but we still expected him to go blow someone up as a consequence for us being attacked. President Obama’s status rose when we took out bin Laden. He did not gather the intelligence or undertake the mission, but in making the decision, he became a warrior chief.

I have worked closely with my son over the past few years, preparing him for this rite-of-passage, and I will continue to work with him, preparing him to enter society as a man.

To ignore our role as the hunter/gatherer would be foolish. To ignore our rights as men to be sensitive and nurturing would be sad.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

ExxonMobil Says Yes to Global Warming – Roger Ingalls

Denier’s walls are crumbling down. It an astonishing speech, ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson, admitted that the burning of fossil fuel is warming the planet. Like many others, I was totally floored when reading about his revelation. Perhaps he had a moment of weakness or maybe the perpetual lying finally got the better of him. More likely reputation played a role; let’s face it, the silly-science arguments used by fossil-energy companies are making them look stupid and lacking in credibility.

Can you imagine the look on the Koch brothers’ faces when they heard about Mr. Tillerson’s speech? I bet they soiled their pants from moaning so hard.

Tillerson wasn’t, by any means, apologetic or gracious. He called the public illiterate, the press lazy and indicated that the risk of spills and accidents were worth the reward. The biggest industry challenge, he said, “taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks.”

Interestingly, Tillerson appeared to ignore any discussion relating to remedial activities that would curb global warming. I suppose this is not a surprise. Slowing the release of greenhouse gasses would negatively impact ExxonMobil financially since more energy burn means more profits for them. The CEO believes we can manage in a hotter world. “We have spent our entire existence adapting. We’ll adapt,” he said. “It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

I give Mr. Tillerson credit for stepping up and acknowledging the impact fossil fuels have on the environment but I also find it obscene that these Wall Street-massaged companies go from “denying” straight to “it’s too late, the damage is done so let’s adapt to our new climate”. Again, not a surprise, it’s all about lining pockets with gold but obscenely sinister nonetheless.

As much as I hate to agree with Tillerson, it is too late. Even if we drastically reduced carbon emissions today, temperatures are going to rise and so will sea levels for the next 200 to 300 years. Forget about green or sustainable economies, we need to pursue an adaptive economy that makes today’s disasters tomorrow’s normal.

The Real USA

I realize that I, like many of my fellow social commentators, spend a lot of time highlighting what is wrong in this country. This is important and even patriotic because it feeds from a desire to create a better and more just society. Today, however, should not be such a day. Allow met to share a post I wrote for a previous July 4th.

I am sitting in my local coffee shop and two men have just walked in together. They are deep in conversation and I see that one insists on paying for both coffees while the other protests and then gratefully accepts. I sense they exchange this ritual regularly.  One man is black and the other is white. This shouldn’t stand out to me living in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, but it does.

These two men, though they walk straight and fluidly, are both old. They must be in their late 70’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in their 80’s. They grew up in a different time, another age, when this scene would have drawn everyone’s attention in the coffee shop. Now, I suspect, it is just me.

These two men lived through segregation, the civil rights movement, and the general drive by mainstream American to create a non-racist, civil society. I know there are extremists out there, and I am aware that black people still face institutional racism. But when spotlighted, there is a strong consensus that such behavior is unacceptable.

I am writing this post a couple of days before the 4th of July. I am still not a citizen of the US, but I feel a part of this society because I believe in what it stands for: freedom and democracy for all. I know it is not perfect, but we are moving forward. I know that not everyone is on board, or swimming in the same direction, but I believe there is a dogged majority who embrace these principles. Jewish proverbs teach us that “It is not for us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”

My blog often criticizes members of our society, organizations and politicians. But today, July 4th, while we fire up the barbeque and chill the bud, lets focus on what we share in common.

I’ll leave you with Janis Ian who spells it out in black and white.  Happy 4th everyone.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

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