Monday, November 16, 2015

Why, Governor Baker?

I've worked for a lot of governors and have known a lot of governors, and I have always appreciated their need to balance what they might want to say about an issue with the political realities of their job.  But the best of our leaders are the ones who rise above the exigencies of local politics and manage to display a sense of commitment to human needs and values during periods of political stress--and in so doing remind us that compassion is often the best antidote for fear and unrest.

So it was with a tremendous sense of loss that I heard of Governor Charlie Baker's comments about Syrian refugees. Loss as in a lost opportunity to bring people together rather than being divisive. And lost admiration on my part as the Governor stooped to a level that I could never have imagined coming from his mouth.

According to the Boston Globe, here's what he said:

In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has joined a group of nearly two dozen American governors who announced Monday they would not allow any Syrian refugees to move to their states.

“I would say no as of right now,” Baker told reporters at the State House Monday. “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria.”

“My view on this is the safety and security of the people of the Commonwealth of Mass. is my highest priority,” he added. “So I would set the bar very high on this.”

“I think at this point in time we’d have to be very cautious about accepting folks without knowing a lot more about what the federal government’s plan looks like and how it’s going to be actually implemented and executed,” he said.

"As a general rule, I don’t like, completely without any knowledge at all, to just say yes or no to anything. I mean, I’m a data guy I always have been and always will be,” he said.

He also said, “I’m always going to be willing to at least hear what the federal government has to say.” But he added, “Hearing what they have to say does not mean saying yes.”

Mr. Baker is smart enough to know that, as Governor, he has no jurisdiction on such matters. Immigration policy is solely in the hands of the US government.

So, is he making his remarks to try to influence federal policy or simply to grandstand on the issue?

But what would it mean to stop the flow of refugees from a country that is literally being destroyed before our eyes?  I recently met one such refugee.  She and her husband and baby boy lived in Damascus.  Their home was taken over by the rebels.  It was then bombed by the Government.  They were homeless and were left with no possessions.  They managed to escape through Lebanon and thence to the US, where she is now enrolled in a graduate program at one of the state's great universities. Their local religious community has welcomed them with open arms and has helped them adjust to their new lives. The family is eternally grateful to the US and people here for giving them a chance to live a normal and productive and peaceful life.

Taking the Governor at his word, this family would have been stopped at the border.

Is he really so insensitive and uncaring about people in distress that he means what he says?  Or, does he not really mean what he says but just feels it expedient to say it? I'm not sure which is worse.

I forget right now, but it was either historian Theodore H. White or Arthur M. Schlesinger who, in summarizing his years of studying American history, said, "Never underestimate the tendency of the US public to become xenophobic." True leaders recognize that danger and work against irrational fear of foreigners: They do not stimulate it by dipping into the mire of anger and fear.


Brian Klepper said...

I have been a longtime admirer of Charlie Baker and so I join you in being aghast and disappointed over these comments. I sincerely hope he rethinks this and makes a follow-on statement that course corrects.

Barbara said...

Its shameful how many if the governors in this country have stated the same position.

I’m not sure what the world is coming too- very depressing

Mike said...

Thanks, Paul, for making such a clear, compassionate, and compelling statement. I’m not sure about who should be credited with the statement about xenophobia, but Richard Hofstadter’s classic “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” shows how deeply it runs in our collective bloodstream.

Tom DeSimone said...

All our governor said is no right at the moment. He certainly left the door open. I am sure as you say there are Syrians that need our help, but is anyone out there troubled by the preponderance of coverage which show, not families, not children, but single young men. I would like to know the percentage that is, in fact families.

Paul Levy said...

I don't know the percentages, but I'm not sure why that's that relevant.

In previous patterns of immigration, it was often the young men who came first: Irish, Jews, Italians, Asians. Some single, some married. But they had the ability to be more mobile and take the risk of passage, get settled, and then create families or bring in their relatives.

"Not right at the moment" means that people in need are left in limbo. The phrase reflects a lack of compassion for the physical and emotional danger in which people find themselves, every day.

Zeke said...

Paul – nicely written. It is amazing how even in Massachusetts with some of the best learning institutions in the world we have this type of thinking.

Sally said...

Thank you so much for writing this blog. It's very sad that the governor feels this way. Unfortunately the refugees are and will be affected.

Anonymous said...

Words can't express how grateful I am for your piece! I was so disturbed by Governor Baker's take on the issue.

Paul Schilstra said...

Well said Paul! As an immigrant, I am reminded of the poem of the Statue of Liberty:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Americans have been very generous defending freedom and democracy throughout 20th and 21st century and the poem best represents America's values and beliefs. Many seem to have forgotten their own roots and how their ancestors were welcomed into this country.

Very sad indeed.


From Facebook said...

Lots of comments over at Facebook. I'll gradually re-post them here.

Beverly Heywood Rogers: Exactly what ISIS wants us to do - exclude more Muslims so they become more radicalized and join them instead.

Mark B Golden: Paul, the answer is very simple. The Governor just remembered he is a republican and therefore bound by secret oath to go against everything humane and everything the President is in favor of. He forgot we are a nation of refugees and forgot that we believe people to be innocent unless proven guilty. If someone wants to do us harm, they will get in.

Jack Corrigan: Important post, Paul. Thank you.

Karen Potischman Wise: Luckily this is s federal issue, so Baker has no say about who crosses state borders into Massachusetts. But it is indeed disappointing to hear him chime in with his Republican cronies on this point.

Catherine Farrell: I agree. The Governor's position will not help us move forward.

A Facebook Dialogue, part 1 said...

Dialogue from Facebook:

James Stergios: Agree on the big picture, Paul, but there are lots of details that would keep me from making such a broad statement. First, notwithstanding a single statement from Federica Mogherini, we don't know a lot about the refugee passport found near the body of one of the attackers. We need to know more about that plot, as Daesh has been clear in noting it will use the refugee crisis to plant its fighters. I take them at their word. This is not a refugee crisis like many others. There are risks and we owe it to our fellow citizens not to let emotion overtake a responsible approach to security and to our values. If Baker is saying carte blanche no, then, yes, that's a really sad place to be. I understood him to be saying no until we have a plan. Governors have a lot of say in this question, on logistics, support and security. The feds can drive the conversation but there are lots of ways in which governors can make this work or slow the feds down. My understanding is that the feds have physical control of the refugees and therefore have them out of harm's way. Now the discussion is how to care short-term and longer term how to integrate the refugees. I would note a certain discomfort with some commenters' high-falutin bromides for two reasons. First, real life is in the blocking and tackling of important details rather than a lofty world of innocent intention. By all means, Baker needs to be on the right side of this debate but he and the feds need to get it right. So let's see what the next few days bring before the swords come out. Second, my experience reaching out to elected representatives regarding a family member in Syria suggest to me that they are full of hot air. No help whatsoever because of course he is a young Arab male. But they do talk a wonderful game in public. I'll take the detailed approach rather than the hot air. Again, if this is a permanent no from Baker, I'm completely with you.

Paul Levy: I respectfully disagree, Jim. His remarks, straight out, reinforced stereotypes. They encouraged xenophobia. "“No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria.” He knew exactly what he was saying and why he was saying it. There are other ways to say what he was saying, if it is indeed what you suggest it was--a careful consideration of security interests. Instead, he chose to engage in an ugly portrayal of the issue. There was not a whit of compassion or caring. Permanent view or not, he did damage. If you listen to the news clips, even his tone of voice reinforced the negative message.

A Facebook dialogue, part 2 said...

Next part:

James Stergios" See the State House News clip on this, where the Senate President is backing Baker's approach. Several parts of the story:
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg backed Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday morning, saying that he supports the governor's cautious approach to accepting Syrian refugees and that the media ran with the wrong part of Baker's comments on the matter.

"I think that the governor's principle message was actually not about whether we should hit pause or not, I think his principle message was, 'we need to make sure that we're doing everything here in Massachusetts to make sure that our people feel safe and that we're doing everything to keep them safe,'" Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said on Boston Herald Radio. "It was the exuberance of certain individuals to highlight the, sort of, the footnote and turn it into the main story."

... Rosenberg said Monday's leadership meeting with himself, Baker and Speaker Robert DeLeo began and ended on the topic of Syrian refugees. He said he has no doubt whatsoever that Baker is doing everything he can to keep Massachusetts safe, and is comfortable with Baker's approach.

"He said we got to make sure that if the federal government is going to place people in Massachusetts and allow them to come to Massachusetts they are thoroughly vetted," the Senate president said. "I don't think there is anyone who disagrees with that. ... I'm all over that, I'm totally in favor of making sure that happens."

James Stergios: Also, Paul, I am not saying what Baker's position is. I am saying -- if he is calling for a deliberate slowdown to ensure that the feds have a plan and are vetting the refugees thoroughly, then I am all for it. If he is placing a marker down that calls for a permanent no, then I am not at all with him. These folks need help, and we need to help them.

Paul Levy" Sorry, "keep Massachusetts safe" is just part of the coded wording. And "the media ran with the wrong part of Baker's comments"? Come on. They were the same kind of comments used by his (mainly Republican) counterparts in other states. Do you think they were not coordinated among those people? This is not an accidental set of remarks by the Governor. They were meant to get the media's attention.

Anonymous said...

I might be bombarded with this observation, but the news showed a preponderance of young men in the Syrian exodus. So now the west (America) sends in our young men to fill the void and fight ISIS. One can ask why those fleeing Syrian men don't consider it important to stay back and help defend their own country instead of handing this dangerous mantle to us.

~~~Concerned mother of a soldier~~~

Paul Levy said...

An understandable observation, thanks. I don't know what and where the news is showing a preponderance of young males. There are millions of refugees of all ages and both genders. The US news didn't show much of that until this last year, although the problems has existed for a long time.

As to why some choose to leave rather than fight, I'd imagine there are lots of reasons. Others have chosen to stay. Indeed, thousands fought in opposing the government there, well before ISIS showed up. Others who were neutral in the government-rebel fight then found themselves to be the target of ISIS. It is a very complicated situation.

But to say those that left have handed the mantle to us is not the case. They've made personal decisions, not geo-political strategy decisions. It is our decision whether to engage militarily in the situation.

Jeff said...

Well said...these governors are poorly informed, poor students of history, and grandstanding

Carole said...

Like Barbara said what is this world coming to? The sadness just deepens, as the evil spreads.
Just remember everything that's happening is meant to weaken and decide us...........................
I believe all the governors were told to say what they said, because those who do the thinking for
them assume that's what we people want to hear. Plain and simple, nothing more nothing less!!!

Anonymous said...

It is amazing that being educated in some of best schools in this country does not cure you from irrationality and paranoia. The events in Paris tragic as they are still necessitates cooler and rational heads to analyze and understand the root cause versus a knee-jerk reaction as exhibited by these dozen or so governors.

Ali Asani said...

I too am dismayed but not shocked by the Governor’s comments. They are based on fear of the perceived other (a fear that has come to the surface due to the security situation). From my perspective such comments are one of the manifestations of illiteracy about religion and culture. People can be highly educated and accomplished in certain fields but still be illiterate, because their education failed to provide them the critical skills to engage with and understand difference. Such literacy needs to be an important goal of education at all levels.

Paul Levy said...

FYI: Ali Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic
Religion and Cultures at Harvard University. You can read a summary expanding on these thoughts from one of his seminars here:

Anonymous said...

I was not surprised about some of the governors, but I didn't expect it here.

Keith Marton said...

Like so many of your other commenters, I am saddened and angered by the irrational fear coming from so many politicians. The fear is in some ways understandable--as the Paris terrorist attack stands as sudden, unexpected and not under an individual's control. This kind of fear, akin to fear of a lightening strike while tolerating the danger of a car crash, has been well studied. One would hope, however, that leaders would take a more balanced view and not succumb to such fear. Thankfully, our president is one such leader.
Your comments are welcome and thoughtful--they contribute to what I hope will be a calming effect in the long run.

Garen Corbett said...

I too, am a long-time admirer of Governor Baker, from back in his A&F days when I worked at the Group Insurance Commission, to his tenure at HPHC and beyond. I was appalled and saddened that this worldview would be propagated by someone as smart as Governor Baker. A sad day, a disturbing statement, and hopefully something that he will rethink. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing for their lives from unspeakable violence... Americans are better than this.

beverly said...

I really don't know why everyone is afraid of the terrorist flavor of the month. This month it is Syrians, next month Egyptians, etc; depending on the latest news.

Have we forgotten that our very own terrorist Timothy McVeigh killed more people single-handed than the Paris attackers? And he was one of our very own. Maybe crazy Americans should be a flavor of the month too; can we keep them out?