Keep Dreaming: Voting for America – take 2

Romney’s philosophy should be objectionable to anyone who truly cherishes the American dream.

Republican convention 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Republican convention 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I didn’t lose my father as a small child, thank God, but at the age of eight, my father lost his. He grew up plenty poor in the Bronx. One childhood memory he passed on to me: leaving watermelon rind on the window sill. The white would turn pink overnight, he explained, providing another sliver of fruit that could be savored in the morning.
Truth be told, that doesn’t sound right to me, but that’s not the point. The point is that I have poverty in my background no less compelling than that of Naomi Ragen (“Voting for America,” September 7), which for some reason she seems to have felt obliged to put forward in establishing her credentials as an authentic exegist of the American dream.
So before challenging her interpretation of it, I’ll do the same.
As in Ragen’s case, my father’s mother was also left with the daunting task of raising her children alone while working impossible hours in a never-ending struggle to make ends meet. I don’t know if she ever received welfare or subsidized housing as Ragen’s mother did, but I do know that as a result of her circumstances she passed on values to her son, which he passed on to me, that Ragen inexplicably appears to summarily reject.
Things like building a society in which both the individual and the collective are expected to look out for those less able to look out for themselves. My paternal grandmother may not have been religiously observant, but she did abide by the teachings of our prophets – that it is the responsibility of the community to concern itself with the needs of the widow and the orphan, to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry.
The welfare state is not some anti-American, communist conspiracy, nor the invention of socialist Zionism, but the heart and soul of Jewish ethical teachings and an expression of the best that America stands for as well. For weeks now we have been reading in synagogue of the sort of society we were to create here after crossing the Jordan. Among the dozens of directives: “If there be among you a poor person... you shall not harden your heart... but you shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land.”
It is incomprehensible to me, then, that for Ragen, who attended an Orthodox day school, “nothing was clearer to me growing up than that... nothing was worse or more demeaning than to be cared for by any government program.”
Nothing worse? How about not being cared for by any government program when the need is real and the beneficiary prepared but unable to care for herself? “When my mother was widowed and left with three small children,” Ragen relates, “...she had no choice but to apply for welfare.” What does Ragen imagine her mother would have done if there had been no welfare to apply for? Buy a lottery ticket? But why choose this moment to engage in such discourse at all? Because Ragen believed it important to explain publicly why she is voting for Mitt Romney for president. That left me feeling duty-bound to explain why I am voting for Barack Obama.
Ragen contextualizes her choice by writing about the 40 years she has spent here juggling her American-ness and her Israeliness.
I’ve done the same, though I would throw my Jewishness into the act as well.
But though we grew up at the same time and more or less in the same place, we occupied two different universes then, as we do today. Though we both maintain that we will be voting in the American elections guided by the American dream – and are comforted by the belief that in doing so we will also be doing what is best for Israel – we will be voting for opposing candidates.
But frankly, it is hard for me to believe that Ragen could really believe what she writes, never mind expect anyone else to.
“As I learned from my mother,” she recalls, “the greatest gift government can provide for the poor is employment opportunities and education. Or as Mitt Romney said: ‘What America needs is jobs, lots of jobs.’” But take a look at the record. In the past half-century, though the Republicans held the White House for 28 years and the Democrats 24, of the 66 million private-sector jobs that were created during that period, 42 million emerged under a Democratic president and only 24 million under a Republican one.
Going on to champion the cause of the hardworking, self-made man, Ragen disingenuously casts Mitt Romney as being precisely that, someone “who built something of his own with his own creativity and hard work,” ignoring the fact that in actuality he was born into a life of privilege, his father being a former governor of Michigan.
Obama’s father, on the other hand, grew up herding goats in Africa. And when he separated from Barack’s mother when the child was only two, the future president was left growing up with an absentee father, a hardship he would have to overcome along with the racism he would experience.
It is ridiculous, then, to suggest that of the two candidates, Romney would be the more sensitive to the need for creating employment opportunities, and the height of cynicism to suggest that he knows better how to do that. While Obama was working as a community organizer for low-income residents in the South Side of Chicago, and later as a civil rights lawyer, Romney was building up Bain Capital, an equities company specializing in leveraged buyouts.
You don’t have to understand the field to understand the bottom line of the countless reports that any search engine will reveal about the company’s modus operandi. It involves borrowing huge sums of money, spinning off huge profits for investors, often at the employees’ expense. Under Romney’s watch they were sometimes laid off by the thousands.
He, however, managed to amass a personal fortune of more than $250 million in the process, though still paying taxes at a rate of only 14 percent.
But the specifics of the business dealings don’t matter as much as the philosophy behind them. And Romney’s philosophy should be objectionable to anyone who truly cherishes the American dream. He wants to slash medical services to the elderly, make it more difficult to receive and repay student loans, decrease taxes for the wealthy, and undercut organized labor.
I prefer Obama’s approach, which, as Bill Clinton so eloquently stated, “embodies the values, the ideas, and the direction America has to take to build a 21st-century version of the American dream, a nation of shared opportunities, shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of community.”
BUT WHAT about the elephant in the room? Not the Republican one, but the president’s Middle East policy. For as much as Ragen professes to be voting her conscience in terms of what is best for America, I cannot help but suspect that her position is also colored by her concern for Israel. And, in her eyes, Obama’s lack of it.
On this matter, while I challenge Ragen’s bottom line, I am more understanding of how she arrived at it. I believe White House policy was initially informed by a strong dose of naïveté and a paralyzing inability to accept that Western reasoning cannot be imposed on foreign cultures in the pursuit of peace halfway around the world.
At the same time, I believe those of our friends who are in a position to know, who insist that America’s commitment to Israel’s security – in word and in deed – is unshakable, and who maintain that “the level of strategic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem today is unprecedented,” a statement recently attributed to Dennis Ross by The Jewish Week.
“‘We’re all in this together,’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own,’” Clinton declared in rallying his fellow citizens to vote Obama. That works for me with regard to the American Dream. It works for me with regard to the relationship between our two countries. I far prefer the support of a friend whose ethos I admire and with whom I am occasionally going to have to argue than that of one whose guiding principles I find offensive.
My fellow Americans, keep dreaming. Vote Obama – for all the right reasons.The writer is an American expat who has lived in Israel for 38 years.