Saturday, September 24, 2011

Senator Russ Feingold Preaches to the Faithful, but Finds Some Ideological Dissension Among The Congregation at Northbrook's Beth Shalom

Lecture Recap

Russ Feingold
U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, 1993-2011
Congregation Beth Shalom, Northbrook, IL
September 22, 2011

Although I have been somewhat politically active for the past several years, and have heard many progressive friends champion the efforts of ex-Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, I have had relatively little direct knowledge of his beliefs, activities or senatorial voting record.

To my recollection, I had also never heard him speak, not even on C-SPAN.

So while I didn't know exactly what he stood for, everything that had filtered through suggested that he was one of the "good guys" in a political system run amok, perhaps all the more so because he had been voted out of it.

Although she didn't give me much forewarning nor exactly invite me, this past Tuesday my mom mentioned that she was going to hear Senator Feingold speak at a synagogue in Northbrook on Thursday. While I have become somewhat cynical about what anyone in either party is going to do to wrest America back from the corporatocracy, I felt it would be worthwhile to hear what he had to say.

The event, part of the Distinguished Speakers Program at Congregation Beth Shalom, was open to the public, but my sense was that the packed sanctuary was comprised primarily of the temple's constituents and others in the community with some sort of connection. In other words, it was a roomful of mostly older Jews.

Feingold himself is Jewish and beyond opening his speech by referencing his northward allegiance for Sunday's Bears-Packers game--while admitting to being a White Sox fan--he mentioned that his uncle had been a noted Rabbi in the Chicagoland area (the crowd seemed to recognize the name) and that his sister Dena Feingold has been a Rabbi in Kenosha for more than 25 years after becoming the first female Rabbi in Wisconsin.

But though the topic of Palestinean statehood was clearly the elephant in the room that got unleashed during the Q&A at the end of his speech, the primary focus of Feingold's lecture did not revolve around religion.

Rather, the senator addressed "three dangerous trends in our country that are weakening our democracy and security." With apologies for some misplaced notes--mine, not his--and therefore a good bit of paraphrasing, these were:

1) The State of Wisconsin Politics - Feingold did not reference his loss last fall to Republican Ron Johnson, but began his remarks by explaining that politics in Wisconsin had previously been rather genteel, especially compared to what goes on in Illinois, and that this relative civility had long reached across party lines. While sharing kind words about former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican, Feingold noted that Thompson had "never pulled a stunt like happened this year."

With that, Feingold went into a blistering explanation of current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's actions earlier this year to decertify the public employee unions, observing that the resulting protests were far larger and more fervid than the Vietnam War protests he'd seen in his youth. I can't cite his exact words, but Feingold was not tepid in expressing a hope that Walker will eventually be recalled, while suggesting that a scandal might speed up the process.

2) The Rising Dominance of Corporate Money - I wasn't really planning to ask the senator a question, but if I had, it would have been about how we can ever untether our political system from corporate campaign contributions in hopes of a government that serves the interests of 99% of the public rather than a few Wall Street tycoons.

With his scathing remarks about the influence of special interests, which has been further exacerbated by the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case essentially allowing corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions (largely negating 2002's McCain-Feingold campaign reform act), Senator Feingold effectively broached the topic most on my mind.

Noting that to undo the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling will require changing the makeup of the court, Feingold stressed the importance of re-electing President Obama, even if one differs with him on many issues. While his acknowledgement of the vice-like stranglehold of Wall Street was disconcerting, as is the fact that he was in large part a victim of his "common good" beliefs, it was at least nice to know that somebody somewhat "gets it."

In February, Feingold formed Progressives United, "a movement whose mission is to: Empower Americans to stand up against the exploding corporate influence in Washington, especially since the Citizens United decision; Hold our representatives accountable to every constituent, regardless of economic class or insider access; and support national, state, and local candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals."

3) Failure to Stay Focused on Foreign Policy and Fighting Terrorism - Promoting his forthcoming book, While America Sleeps--which was in part inspired by similar writings of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy and deals with "failures of government domestically and abroad since the 9/11 attacks"--Feingold expressed concerns about the considerable security risks the United States continues to face.

Saying he supported our initial actions in Afghanistan while decrying the Iraq War--as well as our failure to divorce our troops from either quagmire--Feingold suggested that "trivializing foreign policy" is part of the Republican and Tea Party campaign strategies.

According to the ex-senator, in its bid to drive Obama from office, the GOP is focusing very narrowly--and stringently--on the economy.

"The Republicans have stopped talking about social issues--guns, gays, God--and also about foreign policy," he stated.

"After we got Osama Bin Laden, they act like it's over. I don't think it's over."

Feingold also told the congregation that whenever President Obama says something like, "We need to better understand the Islamic world," the opposition retorts, "There he goes, apologizing for America," and also likes to spew the sound bite suggestion that "Obama wants to take us into socialism."

"It's a dumbing down of our process," offered Feingold about the hyper-polarized political climate, which one elderly audience member suggested was worse than any he'd ever seen.

From the Midwest to the Middle East, Questions Without Easy Answers

Fielding several questions from the audience, some a bit cantankerous, Feingold stated that he has supported Palestinean statehood since the '70s, but feels it folly to let Palestine become a country while it refuses to recognize Israel as one. Though he differs from some of Obama's stated views on Israel-Palestine and in general, he strongly supports the president and said "I believe Obama is a strong supporter of Israel and won't do anything to harm it."

While some, if not many, in the room likely disavow any advocacy for Palestinean statehood, Senator Feingold made a convincing argument--at least to me--that to continue with the current state of perpetual strife is not a viable solution for Israel's lasting security.

And if there was an overarching theme to Feingold's 75-minute appearance at Congregation Beth Shalom, it was that highly complex issues aren't going to lend them to simple, sound bite solutions. If we want to move forward as a country--and as a planet--we need to get away from knee-jerk dissension & venom, "re-unify" our sense of shared responsibility, return to a seemingly progressive notion of respectful discourse and work together through challenges occasionally demanding unpopular decisions.



Anonymous said...

The victory of the corporatocracy is now complete and we are now living through the death throes of American democracy (and society) distracted by meaningless political theater.

makeup artist Sydney said...

Good blog: You should start many more. I love all the info provided. I will stay tuned:) makeup artist in Sydney