The Politics of Being a Camp Counselor – Why There’s No Such Thing as a One-Sided Deal


For the past nine weeks, I haven’t posted on Truth Be Told because I’ve been working as a counselor at a prominent Jewish sleep away camp in Southern California.

In the coming days, I will dive into what I’ve missed – Washington’s über-political debt machinations and the rampant corruption that plagues the business world. But before I comment on those, I’d like to offer a simple (and what, to me, is a meaningful) reflection on a universally applicable lesson I derived from being an educator in a place that has given me the ultimate education.

This summer, I spent my days leading services, clearing tables, planning overnight trips, teaching songs – the works. I was constantly engaged and always busy with campers in a plethora of different settings. But one afternoon stands out in my memory.

On this particular afternoon, I trudged up a hilly knoll and found myself in the bunk area, where the younger campers live. The day was rolling at its normative brisk pace – everything moved and nothing stood still. Ecstatic pairs of feet paced back and forth, from lawn to lawn, as frisbees flew and the leaves of a thick oak tree cast an ephemeral shadow on the grass.

“Ami!” The comfortable commotion briefly stopped. I looked up – past the trees, past the frisbees – at another counselor’s sweaty, exasperated face. “Ami,” – he was almost panting – “What do I do?” He launched into an exhaustive tirade about a twelve year old named Michael who hadn’t showered in days.

Michael just didn’t want to take a shower. That was it; he simply wasn’t into it. Being wet made him uncomfortable. Water wasn’t his thing.

Michael’s pathological aversion to showering made the bunk’s slated “shower time” a difficult hour for his counselors. On this day in particular, Michael had decided to up the ante; he would not shower, no matter the cost.

When the counselor rushed me into his bunk, the scene was a strange one.

Michael had thrown himself onto the slimy tile floor of the bathroom and, like an iron pretzel, had artfully attached his arms and legs to a pipe that held up the sink. His body wound itself over the floor in a way that only a twelve year old’s can. Tears streamed down his face as he begged, glued to the sink, for some solace. He had remained there – a staunchly seated pretzel – for about an hour.

It often seems that the walls of our lives are plastered with notions of stubbornness. In our internal lexicons, “headstrong” is synonymous with “angering,” “irrational,” or “unreasonable.” Time and again, we see the intentions of those with whom we disagree as groundless and unfounded. We perceive the manifestation of their frustrations as a personal effrontery upon ourselves.

Michael’s unbending will was no different. We – those who strove to help him – were blinded by the irritations he projected onto us.

We were all frustrated. Why wouldn’t this kid just move? Why did he have to be so difficult all the time? I scanned the scene again: a group of tall, mature young adults standing above a terrified and uncomfortable child, boldly and loudly insisting that he do something that made him cringe. The problem was evident; there had to be another way. Hesitantly, I situated myself on the slippery floor, latched myself onto the sink, and looked at Michael.

“I don’t like taking showers, either. They don’t feel good on my body.”

Michael looked up at me.

“You know what does feel good, though?”

“What?”

“Being clean. Doesn’t that feel good?”

Michael couldn’t help but agree. I told him that I was going to wash my face and that he could join me. Slowly, Michael stood up. We lathered up our hands in warm water and gently doused our faces in soap.

“Didn’t that feel good?”

“Yep.”

“Being clean is cool, huh?”

“Yeah, it is.”

Then we made a deal: to be able to feel clean – but to not feel too uncomfortable – Michael would take a brief hundred and twenty-second shower. Miraculously, he agreed.

I realize, now, that I have been trying to quash others’ stubbornness for years. We all have. We look for ways to out-Machiavelli those who irk us – in school, in work, and in our most significant relationships. People spend decades studying and researching ways to master human interaction (the kind that are laced with inflexibility) and come out “on top.” In the end, though, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree to grasp the key to understanding another’s intentions.

What does he think he needs right now? Is she feeling some sort of external pressure that has led her here? Just as people don’t ball up on the floor of a dirty bathroom without reason, so too don’t people decide to vote against a bill, sell stock, or cast a vote groundlessly. Dealing in politics is often no different from dealing with a small child’s pathological fears. After we have clarified our own beliefs and expectations, to make any sort of deal or come to any relevant consensus, we have to be on their level, see through their eyes, and establish a solution suitable and sensitive to their needs and desires – no matter how silly or outlandish.

For years, I’ve been taking glimpses into the political world – a place of unwavering inflexibility and an abiding accusatory nature. I’ve taken glimpses into the finance and commerce world – a place of duplicitous intentions and ever competing calculations.

But this summer, I finally got it: their tactics are impotent, as long as you start at their level. And all it took was a glimpse into the world of a very clean twelve-year-old named Michael.

Back to the Basics – What Boehner is Forgetting at the Negotiating Table


In Washington, a temporary budget has been agreed upon, but the debate is really just beginning. No matter what happens at the negotiating table in the weeks and months to come, conservative rhetoric – “cuts, cuts, cuts” – will not cease; because they just don’t get it. A middle school teacher of mine put it simply: you’ve got to spend money to make money.

John Boehner and his cronies missed a critical lesson in their college Econ classes: the one in which the professor taught the ABCs of basic fiscal policy. Just as you can’t start a business without buying the capital necessary for it to thrive, Boehner can’t expect to reinvigorate the largest economy in the world without a willingness to invest in the programs and resources that will lead it to flourish down the road. The Speaker is wrong because the spending cuts he’s demanding – to the degree at which he hopes to pass them – will fail to fish the American economy out of the deep and opaque waters of recession.

When a country has plummeted into massive, debilitating debt – say, hypothetically, our country – it is reasonable to view deficit spending as a puzzling choice. But now, as Washington’s politicians become desperate and some of the United States’ most critical social programs hang in the balance, this is a question finding the lesser of two evils.

Expansionary fiscal policy pumps money into the public’s reserves. And as the government spends more, employment in domestic industries rises – and so does the productivity of those industries. Investment becomes cheaper and more people are opting into business deals. You can’t knit a blanket without the yarn, you can’t write a paper without doing the research, and you can’t grow an economy without capital investment.

There’s a name for John Boehner’s approach to the budget negotiations. Severe and tangible budget cuts are hallmarks of a contractionary fiscal policy – which is used to shrink the economy when it is being overproductive or when it begins to run the risk of creating dangerous bubbles. And in a country whose populace has a profound fear of the implications of China’s ever accelerating rise, that type of policy is far from appropriate.

The people who get the Republicans elected year in and year out – trade moguls, successful business owners, bigwig executives – have built their careers through financial investment. If the Koch brothers (or their like) treated the country as their business, they would advise their representatives to seek investment for future growth, not slice and dice the federal budget until it’s spread so thin that nothing substantive can be built upon it. It is in the interest of American industry – and the American employment rate – to continue to expand the economy.

When Republicans stand up in town meetings, or on the floor of the House and Senate and wag their fingers at the big, bad, hasty Democrats, they’re simply using scare tactics. The claim that (in a recession or deficit) all spending is disadvantageous is an infantile one. Spending cuts can be helpful in eliminating waste, but it isn’t wasteful to underwrite the American future. If we want lasting positive economic change – if we want to make money – then we’ve gotta spend money.

Lessons from a Little Old Lady – How Kinship Can Eclipse Polarization


Sunday night at dinner, as I was poking and prodding at the final remnants of my butternut squash ravioli, my grandfather turned to me and — in that matter-of-fact tone that only a family patriarch can pull off — said, “Ami, here’s a story for you.”

He and my grandmother had flown from Los Angeles to Portland on Friday morning. When they took their seats on the plane, my grandfather became engaged in a conversation with — as he put it — “a little old white lady.” As their conversation progressed, the woman shared with him that she was on her way home from Tucson where she had traveled to listen to President Obama’s speech at AU.

My grandfather was taken aback. He wondered why she hadn’t just watched it on television like the rest of the world, why she’d cared so much about something so distant, why someone so frail would expend so much energy to fly to an unfamiliar place. The woman smiled at my grandfather. “Because,” she said — as though the answer were obvious — “he’s our President.”

Two years ago, Barack Obama was elected on camaraderie’s coattails. The “hope and change” mantra of his campaign was a point of cynical contention from the right, but the desire that it represented was very real and deeply rooted in the contemporary American psyche. The country had a profound thirst for something new and fresh.

But even in the wake of such an overwhelming mandate of optimism, polarization has triumphed over brotherhood, gridlock has transcended compromise — and history has repeated itself. We’re stuck again in that vicious cycle: as political vitriol morphs into physical brutality, the country takes a brief step back to self-assess. The shooting in Tucson has momentarily united us — but it’s only a matter of time until that harmony will wear off and we’ll be back to our usual, comfortable division.

How do we know that? Because nine years ago, when the towers fell, stars and stripes blanketed our nation and the American populace took on a patriotic, altruistic flair. But when the dust settled, what emerged was that pervasive with-us-or-against-us mindset (which consequently paved the way for a streak of impulsive choices and continual polarization). It wasn’t long before “kinship” and “unity” had been erased entirely from the American lexicon.

And forty-three years ago, a significant portion of our nation rallied around a preacher whose stated goal was to end the madness, end the division, end the segregation. But the recurring segmentalist nature of our country made sure that he didn’t make it to the promised land. Even then, malevolence overturned any sort of mutual allegiance we had to one another.

We need more little old ladies.

If we all did away with blind cynicism and acrimony and instead maintained a state of mind that promoted communal dependence and patriotic loyalty to one another, Washington’s gridlock would disappear in a heartbeat — and so would the nation’s. Hostility casts a shadow on our world. But in darkness, all it takes is one flicker of light to see our path.

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., I aspire to live in a country where civility outshines anger, where camaraderie outshines discrimination, and where little old ladies are the lights that guide us on our way to getting there.

Civil Disobedience – What if the Democrats Had Compromised Less?


It’s time to admit that the ship of any sparse hope of party unity has sailed long ago.

There no such thing as “typical” in Washington anymore. The crossroads at which we find ourselves is one of many options, many grim and fatalistic prospects. Capitol Hill is a grab-bag, a random potpourri of eclectic figures, off-color parties, members of those parties who don’t necessarily fit any particular mold.

The right has moved right-er, the left has moved left-er, and the center–well, the center’s slowly evaporated into the already polluted air. Polarizing figure after polarizing figure has made the front page. For every thousand people who follow a radical Republican, a thousand more follow a deranged Democrat.

Harmony’s ship has sailed.

And so the question becomes: what are the practical implications of the emergence of such an atypical political climate? (Warning: I’m about to commend the Democrats. This may sound unusual, as they haven’t done anything right in quite some time. If this is not something that you can handle, please stop reading here.)

Today, in the wake of President Obama’s compromise with Republicans (that got the middle class out of the doghouse and extended unemployment insurance at the expense of allowing the top two percent of income earners off the hook), Democrats in Congress, understated as they may have been, displayed a distinct type of civil disobedience.

The Republicans held the middle class hostage. Why? Because they could. The White House put an apologetic stamp of approval on the Republican tax plan. Why? Because they had to. But today–knowing full well that in just a few short weeks, the tables will take a very sharp turn–Democrats stood on principle.

America, on this crazy journey over the past two years–during which steady duplicity has replaced morality and a dark blanket of fear has shrouded any remaining hope–we’ve lost our sanity. Like water from a sponge, politics has been drained of its conscience. But today the Democrats finally grew a pair and stuck to their principles. If they had committed themselves to their values–started protecting the middle class at a lesser expense–would we be in this position today?

A Puzzled Republic – What this Tax Deal is Really About


Puzzles are arduous to assemble. It’s challenging to pinpoint each individual component to construct the perfect fusion. Each piece gives rise to its own struggle, its own weight. Setbacks ensue, distractions pop up. Different people exhibit different levels of devotion to the puzzle. Building puzzles takes forever. But destroying them only takes a moment.

The puzzle of our fundamental framework — the multifaceted ideological (and more than pragmatic) enigma of the structure of our representative republic — is ever-rapidly sliding off of the table. Our government’s foundational principle is in peril. Forget about “taxation without representation.” What’s happening right now is under-taxation as a result of over-representation.

Let’s break this down so it is clear how I’ve arrived at my seemingly austere conclusion. Assume, for the time being, that the two central issues on Washington’s agenda are 1) the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the upper class and 2) the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. In very simplistic terms, the “upper class” is comprised of the top two percent of income-earners in this country; that is, the people in the ninety-ninth and hundredth percentile of income earned. The “middle class,” in a matter of words, is almost everyone else.

In the consummate representative government — isn’t that America? — the populations that carry the most weight (the groups that make up larger slices of the American pie) yield more representation in Congress. That, of course, is not to say that minorities and underdogs should go unaccounted for on the national stage. But when ninety eight percent of the country’s wage earners can be classified under one category, the remaining two percent’s voice in Congress should not transcend the overwhelming majority’s.

The culmination of Washington’s latest deliberations seems to entail a “compromise” to extend a tax credit for the two percent of the country who can afford to forgo precisely that credit. That two percent is entitled to the same representation that the rest of the country is; it is not, however, entitled to disproportionate influence on the Hill.

The puzzle is sliding off of the table. The pieces are falling out of place. The slope is a slippery one. And in the wake of the impending critical Congressional term, the question that Americans need to start asking vehemently is: whom do our representatives really represent? We need to ask because puzzles take centuries to build, but they only take one pivotal moment to destroy. Without that question, that moment is now.

Check Your Balances


“Only in Washington is it a radical idea to read a bill and know how much it costs before we agree to pass it.”

Who said this? Sen. Jim DeMint. Why did he say it? Because, today, his office sent a memo to Republican Senate staff, letting them know that he would be putting a legislative block on all bills on the Senate floor that he did not approve of.

Some say that he’s doing this in an attempt to usurp Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s power–perhaps trying to gain momentum, with the ultimate goal of taking over the role as Minority Leader. He’s already campaigned for several non-establishment Republican congressional candidates around the country which has been seen as a similar move. That’s politics.

But reading a bill and knowing how much it costs is not a radical idea in Washington. It’s a responsible idea. If only that was DeMint’s idea.

Perhaps the rules of the Senate need tweaking. But what Sen. DeMint is forgetting is that we already have a system of deciding what does and doesn’t pass in the Senate. It’s a system that’s worked for us for us for a little over two centuries. It’s called voting. When our representatives in the House and Senate think that a project shouldn’t be funded or that an amendment should be stricken from a bill, they don’t block it from coming to the floor. They simply vote “no.” Checks and balances are an imperative part of our governmental system so that one branch–or one person–can’t get too powerful, and so that the populace is represented based on the opinion of the populace and not the opinion of an old fart from Charleston.

It is unthinkably self-centered and ignorant for one man to think that he should be the author and editor of the entire congressional agenda.