Saturday, December 30, 2006
Hussein's hanging will go down in history as yet another mistake in the huge series involving Iraq. Why? Writing in the second century of our era, the Christian writer Tertullian provides the classic explanation in another context. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church," he wrote.
The word "martyr" comes from the Greek, meaning "witness." The early Christian martyrs gave witness to their faith to the point of death. Their example inspired the growth of the Christian movement to the point that it eventually took over the Roman Empire.
More to the point of Hussein's death, in Islam a martyr (shaheed) is also a witness, particularly when defending the Islamic world from an expansionist adversary. There is some controversy whether the suicide bombers could properly becalled martyrs, since Islam prohibits suicide.
No such obstacle stands in the way of the crown of Islamic martyrdom for the strongman ruler of Iraq.
You may object that Hussein ordered people killed and was despotic. Care to name mild and democratic leaders in the Arab world whom Hussein might have chosen to emulate? Which emir or pasha was elected? What Arab nation is renown for regarding the habeas corpus and due process devoid of cruel and unusual punishment as standard operating procedure?
What might Hussein be compared to globally that it warrants a U.S. puppet government executing him? Was Hussein's treatment of Kurds and dissidents worse than that of the secret SAVAK police under the CIA-installed Shah of Iran? Worse than that of Gen. Pinochet of Chile, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or the Apartheid regime of South Africa, all of which received lavish U.S. support over the course of decades?
Was Hussein worse than the carefully cultivated Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (whose rule Hussein's regime most closely resembles)? The gallery of cruel dictators aided by Washington is long. Why pick on this one?
The reverse could be asked concerning Ford. The man who told New York City to go bankrupt has now, in the words of Daily News headline writers, dropped dead. Why the gushing accolades?
Not mentioned in the Ford hagiography is that he opposed public housing, the minimum wage and called for the bombing of North Vietnam. When Congress blocked Nixon's attempt to appoint white supremacists to the Supreme Court, Ford launched an effort to impeach the liberal William O. Douglas.
As to Watergate, he is now presented as a visionary of healing, but in 1972, it was Ford's parliamentary maneuvers that prevented congressional hearings on the burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters before the elections took place. In January 1974, Ford charged that “the AFL-CIO, the Americans for Democratic Action and other powerful pressure organizations [are] waging a massive propaganda campaign against the president of the United States.”
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has documented a meeting between Ford and Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig on Aug. 1, 1974, eight days before Nixon resigned, in which three options were presented to Ford, all involving pardons of Nixon. Ford later claimed no deal was made, but it's obvious that the quid-pro-quo was part of the fix that led him to his unelected presidency.
So what's to be gained by elevating Hussein to the status of an Islamic folk hero, when he could have been allowed into old age in prison for decades until his name and being became as thin and harmless a public memory as Ford's?
Monday, December 25, 2006
In the end, I can only count on myself.
You, too, can only count on yourself. You thought the president was going to take care of those night terrors? You expected Mommy to come hug you through the unemployment line? Ha!
What's more, I can't divorce myself. I'm stuck with me through thick and thin.
That's the via negativa to self love. We can turn it around.
You see, I can make myself better as no one else can. You, too, can grow and enhance yourself in ways no one else can match.
Start thinking small. I can wake up hungry and feed myself. I can be dirty and wash myself clean.
That's quite a lot! I am, as a person with disability told me some time ago, temporarily able-bodied; one day I may be bed-ridden and incontinent. For the moment, I can do for myself everything that my mother once did for me when I was a newborn -- and then some. I can probably do all this with greater precision than anyone else, since I know exactly what I like and want, what will make me feel good.
In the Republic of Me, I am the people and the representatives. I am the sovereign and liege in my own kingdom.
In my inner conflicts (dialectics, anyone?) I aim, for my labor and management, my male and female (yes, Virginia, there's also a guy lurking inside you), the boss and the bossed, to make things better in the end. My inner selves live in covenant with one another and we have the potential to be at peace.
We are a prosperous happy little realm, I, me, and myself. At heart we are delighted to greet ourselves in the mirror. That wonderful familiar face.
Is it too fat, wrinkled, sebaceous, sallow? We can choose better food, use better makeup, or simply choose to ignore it.
I have that power. I can love myself.
Oh, sure, there comes the moment or three in which we see that movie star on a magazine cover, that actor or actress on TV, that politician, that carefully groomed author on a dust-jacket ... and, for that moment, the worms of envy and hatred drive us into a rage at the gall of those daring to upstage the star of our lives, so easily, so totally!
Our looks seem so ... I don't know, lacking. No wonder I didn't get to be the Paris correspondent for The New York Times and marry a blonde Nobel-prize winnning novelist! I don't look right.
But that's totally wrong! In the Dominion of Me, Myself & I (note the ampersand in the august title) those terms and rules have no jurisdiction, no claim, no extraterritoriality.
In the personal channels of my brain, Entertainment Today (or whatever those shows are called) features the perennial celebrity: me. My Academy of Language accords me its highest honor every year. To ourselves, we are, as the Beatles claimed, more famous than Jesus.
We have so much that we overflow to others. Of course, we're in love ...!
Friday, December 22, 2006
Good is an imperative. Say it: "I will not long survive unless I embrace a moral order that begins with my survival and demands behavior that enhances the survival of all humanity."
A moral order is not a series of orders that pretends to be moral: wave the flag, work for a living, keep you genitals zipped up except in certain circumstances. That's just a set of manners to keep us all in line for whomever the powers that be happen to be; it's a vision made squalid by rulemakers, churches, schools, mothers without a sense of humor, fathers with belts that are too tight.
A few nights ago, out of nowhere, I had a dream about this.
I found myself in the atrium of a very modern school. A priest was sitting at a desk with some books in front of him. A nun sat beside him.
She explained that everyone in the school would be going door to door throughout the neighborhood to make sure that every family had a copy of the catechism, the Bible and another book I can't recall.
"What if the families can't afford the books?" I asked.
"Why, this is the key to eternal life," said the priest.
"So Jesus didn't really say 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.' ?" I said.
Then I asked: "What he really said was 'Come, for you have sold catechisms and Bibles and good books' ?"
I woke up just then. Just in time to avoid the scene I had set in motion.
This did not strike me as a dream about Jesus or Christianity, only a criticism of the way visionaries have been defanged and declawed so that their challenges might be more palatable and profitable to the shamans and the kings they serve.
The real imperative is much wilder, impractical, almost impossible. It breaks through laws, regulations, tame social manners. It doesn't justify war or profiteering or sexualizing; nor does it provide the convenient hypocritical tut-tutting. The great visionaries saw something far, far beyond a well-ordered society and the churches and armies and brothels and cotillions.
Don't just do something, as Buddhists like to say, stand there!
Turn the other cheek. Begin the ending. Love the hate. Paint colors over what is gray or black or white. Do nothing.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
It is true, at least in the United States, according to the Bureau of the Census.
Up through age 49, divorced men make up no more than 29.5 percent of their peers. This jumps to 40.8 percent in the ages of 50 to 59. Then it declines to 30.9 percent in the following age decade. For divorced women the same percentages are 35.4 percent, 38.9 percent, 28.4 percent. (See Kreider,Rose M., 2005. Number, Timing,and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001. Current Population Reports, P70-97. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington,D.C., which you can download here.)
A 2004 survey of matrimonial lawyers in Britain found as causes extra-marital affairs (27 percent), family strains (18 percent), emotional/physical abuse (17 percent), mid-life crisis (13 percent), addictions (6 percent), workaholism (6 percent). A study by a California State University professor based on the opinions of the individuals involved listed incompatibility, lack of emotional support, abuse, sexual problems and money.
Few surprises here for the general population.
But the Census tell us that marriages that last more than 20 years tend not to end in divorce. Yet those are the marriage breakups we're focusing on here. Married people in their first marriage by their fifties have usually been together a long time.
That's what my experience listening to stories as a volunteer discussion meeting facilitator in a support group for separated and divorced men and women (go here) tells me.
Many people, I think, want to break out of their lives at some point in middle age. Some men think that if they get a new young wife they will be young again. (Others sublimate with the purchase of a sports car or motorcycle.)
As to women, to my mind (I expect rotten tomatoes for this, but I will stand my ground), the dirty little secret no one talks about much is the M-word, menopause, which in my opinion exacerbates existing conflicts when the condition strikes and reduces the will to reconcile. When childrearing comes to an end, also, a number of changes bring about a reorientation of life.
There's also an intangible sense, I think, that if only you could get out of your marriage your life would be so much better. Something's missing that you think everyone else has.
What none of this takes into account is what happens after. Here my listening experience talks. For the first week or three there's an immediate release, for the leaver, from the affliction, real or imagined, that led to leaving.
For the leaved it's another story. One person I know attempted suicide. Many, many others fell into a deep sadness. There's an overwhelming sense of failure and doom hovers over everything when a marriage of X years (especially when X includes multiples of 10) seems to have ended for good.
When that realization hits the leaver, the same sadness seeps into his or her heart. (Unless the leaver has run off with someone ... that will happen when the infatuation fades away.)
People make it worse. Friends and family take sides. Many refuse to have anything to do with the two people breaking up, on grounds that it might be "catching." You learn how few friends you really have; how useless relatives are. Your kids have enough challenges with their own lives. If you are religious, you learn how little God intervenes.
Then comes the law to coldly divide possessions you jointly struggled to acquire.
Even if you then find a support group and go on a spree of dating, you find it doesn't ultimately solve anything. Your dates ultimately don't care about anything but themselves, just like the ex who left you or whom you left.
You are alone and you are fifty-something. You've done just about everything you put your mind to do since youth. Next stop is to become ashes in an urn ... and what a long way down that is!
Oh, you can find new friends and fill your life with busy-ness and travel and acquisition. (I have no idea what this thing about travel is: I've gone everywhere I ever want to go.)
Yet there will always remain the hole of the thing that fell apart, the other life you ended prematurely. But I stray from the topic, because that's why people don't break up. That's why people, deep down, wish they hadn't broken up.
As to breaking up, Neil Sedaka was right. It's not very easy to do.
Once it's done, all the king's horses and all the king's men will find well nigh impossible to put it together again.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Almost five years ago I stopped attending any kind of Sunday Eucharist service, a practice in which I had been constant almost all my life. Although my faith fell off like scales, in a reversal of Saul of Tarsus' experience in Acts 9:18, I have been sporadically attending various churches over the past year or so.
Why is an agnostic even going to church? That's a long story I'll leave for another day.
Eight days ago, I undertook my sporadic sitting in at the Eucharist service in the main nave of the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Anglican see's main church in Washington, D.C.
The cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III decided to open his sermon on the season of advent with a broadside on Richard Dawkins and his most recent book The God Delusion (for my blog on both, go here).
Only Lloyd didn't say Dawkins. He said "Hawkins." To which I uttered an almost reflexive correction "Dawkins!" that annoyed a few fellow churchgoers.
Then he said it again: Hawkins. He identified the "best-seller" (is it?) by its correct title but kept saying Hawkins (get the taped sermon here if you don't believe me).
Clearly, Lloyd had never set eyes on even a comma written by Dawkins, an uncommon name that would have stuck in the mind of any bona fide reader.
Worse still, Lloyd wielded a puerile argument against Dawkins' contention that religion is the cause of a great deal of violence, both in the present and historically. The Dean countered with the proposition that the great massacres of the 20th century had been committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao, whom Lloyd covered with the blanket characterization of "atheists."
This made me cringe because, first of all, it is not conclusively proven that the Jesuit-educated Adolf Hitler was actually an atheist.
Moreover, the belt buckle worn by soldiers of the Wehrmacht read "Gott mit Uns" (God with us). This is known to have served as a prop referred to by commanders in the field rousing the rank and file before battle on the Eastern Front against the godless Soviets.
The record shows that the Nazi war machine and its genocidal sidekicks did not formally disown the European Christian deity; to the contrary, God was heartily invoked by the invading, marauding, pillaging and murdering German hordes.
Similarly, former Orthodox seminarian Yosip Stalin might correctly be identified as having become an atheist as general secretary of the Communist Party, although he spawned a cult of personality that turned Marxism-Leninism into something remarkably similar to a religion.
Much the same could be said of Mao, whose best known aphorism on this subject is "religion is poison." The French film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard made no bones about adopting Maoism as his "religion," which is precisely the way Maoist Communism functioned.
Most important of all, neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Mao sent millions to their deaths under the banner of atheism, but under the aegis of their particular brand of nationalism and collectivism. At most, they could be said to be mass-murdering maniacs who just happened to be atheists, if that.
The reverse, my Very Reverend Sir Priest Lloyd, cannot be said of the great Christian persecutors and annihilators.
In the name of the Christian God, they have
- dispatched Saracens in the Crusades and heretics in the Inquisition during the Middle Ages;
- then in the Renaissance sent dissenters from Calvinism to the bottom of Lake Geneva with the proverbial millstone tied to their necks, or sent hundreds of Jesuits and and Jesuit-protectors to be drawn and quartered by order of Queen Elizabeth of England, or killed varieties of Catholics, Jews and Protestants in diverse and ever-inventive ways, all for the sake of their faiths;
- finally in the more modern ages, robbed and murdered native populations of America, Africa and Asia, also with great missionary zeal and churches' blessing.
Islam, granted, is not behind by far. The Sunni and Shia rivalry has claimed lives for a millenium and the spread of Muslim jihadists throughout the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Spain in the Middle Ages, bespeak centuries of war in the name of another monotheistic religion and its blood-thirsty adherents. Only military defeats five hundred years ago kept the Muslim jihad at bay. And, purely Quranic or not, need we mention Al-Qaeda and its leaders plain invocation of their God?
Not to be left behind, the followers of the Jewish faith of Abraham practiced wholesale slaughter by divine inspiration according to their own holy writ in places such as Jericho. In modern times, the State of Israel has waged at least one unquestionable war of aggression (1967), along with bearing with responsibility for several massacres of civilians in Lebanon, most recently in the village of Qana. Anyone claiming, with talmudic hair-splitting, that no violence has come from the adherents of Judaism for the two millenia in between forgets that, as criminal lawyers say, the means and the opportunity were lacking.
In the end, Lloyd's rhetorical sparring nets him a 3-0 defeat -- and that's only counting three monotheistic religions!
Yet it was not so long ago that Lloyd's other words -- such as his positive call to his congregation to let the love of Jesus Christ be born in their hearts during advent -- would have resonated in my bones, blotting out the nonsense, the arrogance and the cupidity of an overreaching preacher.
This time I was left with emptiness. I did not want to join him in reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith that follows the homily in the Western Christian liturgical matrix. I do not believe. After hearing him I knew firmly that I do not believe.
Something finally snapped and I have been searching for words to describe what it was for eight days. I give up.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
These are the same folks who fawned over Bush when the last Republican national convention held his apotheotic second coronation. In case you don't recall, that was when young, crewcut Republicans screaming "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" brought eerily to the minds of so many of us the images of rallies such as Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl might have choreographed.
Now that the Democratic Party successfully made Bush the poster boy of all that is wrong -- and he does bear responsibility for a lion's share of it -- and has taken the Senate and the House from the GOP, many right-wingers are trying to tip-toe away.
It's the "good German" syndrome. Or as Woody Allen put it: "I never knew Hitler was a Nazi, I thought he worked for the telephone company."
Only columnist Charles Krauthammer, the rottweiler of U.S. nationalism even though he was born not in the United States but Uruguay, has realized the need for some dignity in defeat and remains a stalwart defender of the Bush Administration.
The Republican Party since 1980 has been essentially a party of opportunists: they have vied with each other for the largest bribes, the most shameless cronyism and war-profiteering and, for a while, have been handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Now it's dawned on them that the party is over and that they're dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic.
Let's not let the rats jump off ship. Let's make sure at least a few of them drown as they richly deserve.
One of the important ways to do so is to avoid falling for the single-gunman theory that has dominated the public interpretation of many pivotal events. I mean single gunman as in Lee Harvey Oswald, obviously the mere puppet of a conspiracy so clever that 43 years later we still do not know its contours.
In this case, let's not forget that the unmitigated disaster to which this president has led us -- war, debt as far as the eye can see, widening gaps between have-mores and haves (let alone between those two and the have-nots) -- is not the result of the one man, W, making mistakes.
Dubya isn't a bumbling idiot. He is a clever dissembler who hasn't minded looking like an idiot so long as it advanced his agenda.
All of our current national problems are the logical consequence of the Reaganite policy and the Reaganite agenda since 1980. And it was the agenda, not his stumbling, that a sizeable proportion of Americans have rejected.
Neo-conservatism, the Reaganite marriage of fundamentalist Christian theocracy with laissez-faire, Laffer-curve social darwinism, has not merely been heartless and immoral policy since 1981. It has been, on the facts and in the most practical of terms, simply and undeniably wrong.
Two more years of it and we would have lost the U.S. Constitution, confirming the dictatorship into which Bush -- and his entire neo-conservative movement -- has been attempting to seduce the United States. The recent congressional elections have been a Thermidorian reaction -- reminiscent of 1790s France when terror ended.
Hopefully, the elections will have the effect of halting the ascendancy of Patriot Act-inspired terror by the U.S. government, diminishing the capacity of officials to brand anyone with whom they disagree a "traitor," and bringing closer the day in which the massive transfer of national assets to the wealthiest elites, domestic and foreign, is brought to a stop.
Now it's time to make clear just how un-American, how intolerant, how limited, and how ultimately against the national interest neo-conservatism, all its branches, all its policies and all its figures really have been.
To paraphrase Marie-Antoinette, let them eat crow.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Although I lived far, far away from the events and turned only 16 four days later, I was as involved in the politics of the day as a Catholic private school boy could be. This second Kennedy assassination cast the final pall of pessimism upon my youthful idealism. I cancelled my birthday party as I wondered how the world could be going so wrong.
In the film there's a Czech journalist trying to get an interview with RFK. She has to deal with U.S. provincialism before she drives home the point that her country is undergoing the famous "Prague Spring" under Alexander Dubcek. By August 20, Soviet tanks would bring an early Stalinist frost.
Could things have gone any worse in that fateful 1968 that defined, I thought then, the definitive end of the post-World War II optimism I had grown up with as a child?
Recall the Tet Offensive strikes in the heart of Saigon at the beginning of the year, which proved that the Viet Cong was nowhere near vanquished, as military leaders were telling Congress. The third-party presidential candidacy of George Wallace. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At year's end, the election of Richard Nixon.
Rewind history. Could things have ended up better had Bobby lived?
First off, he would have won the presidential election. Kennedy was still a magic name then. We would have avoided the Nixon presidency and Henry Kissinger would have remained an obscure professor.
Second, Bobby was an effective conciliator and motivator, drawing, like his brother, the best from people from their highest and noblest instincts. It is difficult to believe that such leadership would have yielded ground to mean-spirited conservatism, as happened by 1980. Bobby would have galvanized and reunited the country.
Third, a president as attentive to social disparity as he was wouldn't have allowed the stagnation of wages that occurred following the 1973 oil crisis until the present. Kennedy might have avoided the crisis altogether by bridging differences in the Middle East.
The "Me Decade" of the 1970s might have been the "You Decade" that never came to be. And so on and so forth.
I might have believed more potently in the possibilities of various belief structures, political and religious, to live up to their ideals. I might have become a Catholic priest.
One bullet changed everything. The men who wanted Nixon, who wanted eventually to see in the 1980s a demented president take money from infants to give to the military-industrial complex. Those men won. Those men have been winning so far this century.
Maybe it's time to make Bobby come alive again.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The Roman maxim De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (Let nothing but good be said of the dead) is the smokescreen for enshrining evil no matter what.
There's some catching up for this year, so let us begin, then.
Milton Friedman, who died of heart failure on Nov. 16, 2006, rot in hell, you bastard, for the millions of children, their parents, and the advocates who fought for them, who died of hunger, malnutrition, in sheer poverty, or tortured by the forces that idolized your maleficent ideas in Chile and other Third World countries.
Caspar Weinberger, died of pneumonia on March 28, 2006, not painfully enough, for a career of covering up for drug-dealing in the Reagan White House, lying to grand juries and war profiteering in such a way that resources that could have gone to heal and to build went to destroy and monger conflict. Rot in hell, you bastard!
Nominations for future RIH awards may be made at this e-mail.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Pour moi, la passion, c'est un amour très fort. La passion, c'est un amour déraisonné et un peu possessif. (For me, passion is a very strong love. Passion is a love without reason and a little possessive.)
This unbridled feeling is focused on the one person, she says, whom one cannot stop thinking about, dreaming about, one cannot imagine life without this person.
So far, I imagine, my correspondent has plucked every heart in the house. I hear the sighs and ever the trickling of slow tears of recognition down the cheeks of some (predominantly female) readers.
Let me risk rotten tomatoes from the peanut gallery, if you'll excuse the mixed vegetable kingdom metaphor (and yes, purists, peanuts are legumes but legumes are still within the vegetable kingdom), and ask:
- Must one person be the be-all and end-all of one's existence?
- Is it realistic to expect one person to be the favorite conversation partner, the best dining companion, the most practical and helpful chore mate, the most leonine bed partner, the profoundest fellow philosopher of life and so on and so forth?
- Aren't such combined, overblown and unliveable expectations or fantasies the cause of all our misfortunes in love?
Why can't we opt for varied companions for different occasions, instead of single mates for every season who must perforce disappoint us?
We accept that certain friends bring certain gifts and others something quite different. Yet we can't, somehow, accept that there are men or women suitable for a night at the opera and different men or women suitable for a romp in the countryside.
Is there only one for each one? If so, why do at least 50% of those who choose ecclesiastical or legal means to express such a notion end up divorced?
These are just questions. I don't claim to have an answer. My experience just tells me that the conventional, sentimental answers don't work particularly well.
There's just got to be a better way.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
OK, folks, let's vote:
(A) Pelosi's public story is that she thought Murtha, who called for a pullout from Iraq last December, was the best man for the job. This even though Murtha remains an unindicted character in the Abscam scandal and, in his late 70s, is probably not the most spry member of the House. Besides, Murtha has never sought anything before. Vote A if you believe the public story.
(B) My first theory: Pelosi was bullied and/or blackmailed by Murtha into writing the "dear colleague" letter to the House despite the widespread support for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md), who won. She did as requested, fully knowing Murtha would lose.
(C) My second theory: Pelosi, Hoyer and Murtha are in on a fakeout Democratic "brawl" to lull the White House and the GOPers on the other side of the aisle into the belief that the Dems will shoot themselves in the foot. Watch out for sneak attacks in January.
(D) Propose an explanation.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
During the campaign, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) said "You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
What his script said was: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq."
There isn't a substantive difference between the two and, frankly, any sane group of people who were not soaked in political rhetoric and gamesmanship would admit that the troops in Iraq are
- not the sharpest knives in the cupboard (see Lynndie England, the poster child for the lower-middle class whites pressed into service with little or no preparation); and
- nearly completely devoid of representatives from the privileged class, which is busy making money off the poor saps sent out to die for no reason we know of yet (one day we'll find out which corporations the soldiers died for).
And what was the "apology" all about? The statement was entirely right. You study, you become Bernie the Bond-trader with the SUV, McMansion, blonde wife and 2.5 kids. You don't study, you become a dropout whose only career choice is to chase molotov-cocktail throwers in Fallujah.
Here's a different nonreality: the chorus that demanded -- and got -- Donald Rumsfeld's departure from the Pentagon.
Sure, he made for a perfect campaign foil. Rumsfeld was excoriated as the source of everything that went wrong in Iraq by generals, the military press, Republicans, Democrats -- in short, the whole political establishment.
I get nervous when so many folks in the hot-air industry all agree. Don't you? When a cleric speaks about the evils of sex, watch your wallet. When politicos agree, look for what's not being said.
In the case of the former secretary of defense, absent from the debate was the substance. The only substantive matter on which Rummy, whose military experience went no further than a peacetime stint as a flight instructor, had a significant policy opinion regarding business at usual in the Pentagon -- such as $640 toilet seats -- was his well-known differing view of war economics.
Some called it "war on the cheap." Others called it war as a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton.
But what Rumsfeld really advocated was far from the headlines: it was a restructuring of the U.S. military away from the massive total-war machine suitable for World War II, with 600 ships in the Navy, countless bombers and fighters, and tons of equipment, to a very lean, easily deployable force capable of waging battle in what since Reagan administration days has been known in military-security circles as "low-intensity conflict" (aka guerrilla warfare).
This has been the challenge to the United States since Korea. No sane nation-state will declare war on, or deploy an army against the United States for the foreseeable future. None has since 1951. In fact, even North Korea originally thought it would fight its neighbor, not the USA and the United Nations.
This is also why a bunch of half-starved Vietnamese in black pajamas defeated the U.S. military. Our troops were fighting World War II-Pacific Theater, they were waging low-intensity conflict.
I don't like any kind of war, but if you're going to wage it, Rumsfeld's doctrine makes sense. What is the problem with Rumsfeld's doctrine? The principal resource is human.
The Rumsfeld doctrine doesn't require purchase of as much heavy equipment meant to be blown up and purchased again and again (talk about planned obsolescence!). Generals can't retire and go to work for Lockheed, Boeing and Grumman. The Rumsfeld doctrine was a menace to something President Dwight David Eisenhower warned us about in his departing speech, the thing he dubbed "the military-industrial complex."
That's why the chorus of the wholly owned subsidiary on Capitol Hill (some also call it Congress) was so dead-set against Rummy. Congresspersons get lots of bribes (aka campaign contributions, junkets, gifts) from the "defense" industry. (Why don't we call it the War Department, which it is, the way we used to? That's another whole blog.)
Let's do a quick little bit of Tuesday morning quarterbacking on the election, now that Monday's way past gone, to note that the results were a resounding victory for ... Wall Street.
Oh, yes, we're going to hear a lot of bad news that was suppressed until after the election. The Bush II jobless "boom" is losing steam. Stop the presses: the Republicans did not abolish the business cycle. We're headed for another recession -- in my opinion a stealth recession has been going on for about two years, but that, too, is another blog.
But Wall Street loves divided government.
In the next two years, investors can be assured that nothing dramatic or upsetting will take place in Washington. Nothing radical a few Democrats will offer has any chance of surviving a presidential veto; nothing crazy the White House might concoct has the slightest chance in a Democratic House and Senate.
So much for the purpling of America. The business of America is business, that's the greening of America that's going on -- for the top 2 percent, anyway.
Nothing is what it seems.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus is reputed to have said, so in 1982 the Reagan administration built nuclear missiles that were originally to be named "Peacemaker."
War has never been good, nor holy, nor praiseworthy -- even the men who have mongered war have always known this to be true.
In 1917, coming home from the front, Siegfried Sassoon declared, and a member of Parliament read in session: "I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust ... On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."
Sassoon was locked up as insane.
No war need ever have occurred, had those in power been willing to negotiate and compromise. In the two centuries of U.S. warmaking,
- the War of Independence and its follow-up, the War of 1812, could have been avoided: Canada became independent without firing a single bullet;
- the Mexican-American War was an ignominious war of conquest that need not have happened at all save for the Anglo Texans' greed;
- the Civil War need never have been fought: the backward-thinking South is still retrograde and racist ... the region does not belong in the United States;
- the Spanish-American War was another naked land-grab and saber-rattling that should never have occurred;
- there never was a good reason for World War I and, without it, World War II would never have occurred;
- the Korean War kept the military-industrial complex going but it accomplished little that could not have been negotiated;
- the United States had no business in Vietnam;
- nothing achieved in the Kuwait War could not have been acheived through diplomacy;
- the Iraq War was totally unjustified, launched by a lying president.
And that's only the American dead. The other side, and civilians, were also killed and wounded.
For example, we are all familiar with the 57,690 American dead in Vietnam. Yet according to the The Vietnam War Almanac, the South Vietnamese military lost 243,748 lives; Korea's 4,407; Australia and New Zealand combined, lost 469; Thailand, 351; the Vietnam People's Army and National Liberation Front combined tallied 666,000 dead combatants. Then there are the civilians, estimated at 65,000 North Vietnamese and 300,000 South Vietnamese dead.
In all 1,337,314 people killed. That's 1,337,314 mothers who lost a child. Let's try to explain why their labor was in vain to them, shall we?
Therefore, today, on Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, I do not honor the veterans, for unlike the very few such as Sassoon, most of them do bear some responsibility, as aptly put in the song composed by Buffy St. Marie,
He's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide,
Who's to live and who's to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.
But without him,
How would Hitler have condemned him at Laval?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
He's the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.
He's the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can't you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.
Thus, today I draw on words from a man I did not like very much, Pope Paul VI, yet someone who spoke to the United Nations in 1965 with words that still resonate: “No more war! Never again war! If you wish to be brothers, drop your weapons.”
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Starting with the bad news, let's recall that in six short years we in the United States have gone
- from federal fiscal surpluses projected as far as the eye could see, enough to guarantee the dignified retirement of the entire Boomer generation, whose beachhead turns 60 this year, to $2.8 trillion in debt accumulated by the Bush administration, not counting Iraq;
- from a decade of declining unemployment and rising wages to what most economists agree has been a jobless recovery from recession (the R in Republican truly seems to stand for recession, the Reagan recession, the Bush I recession, the Bush II recession, even the Nixon recession) and wage stagnation in which the average family income has failed to keep up with inflation for the past five years in a row;
- from declining poverty and malnutrition to rising poverty and hunger, all while the stratospherically wealthy became richer even still, while paying fewer and fewer taxes;
- from the breaking out of peace in embattled Ulster and the end of genocide in Yugoslavia -- both brought about by Clinton administration-supported diplomatic mediators -- to quagmire in Iraq and a failure to engage with Islamic jihadism; ...
And with the "anti-terror" legislation rammed through by the Republican House of Representatives, the U.S. government edged into an era of despotism in which the ruler can simply classify anyone as an "enemy combatant," without review or appeal, and lock that person away for torture and mistreatment indefinitely!
Goodbye, democracy! Well, it had been that since the coup d'etat of November 2000. But now that jackboots can legally march into our homes.
This is when it is good to recall the roots of the Democratic Party, the only voice available to contest the arbitrary abuse of power upon which the Bush administration is hell bent.
The legacy of Thomas Jefferson is monumental as it is flawed and still imperfect.
Jefferson took the social compact and the idea of balances and checks in the work of English philosopher John Locke and imported what could pass muster into the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution. The legacy is monumental because it enshrined for the first time in history the notion that human beings were entitled to govern themselves.
The flaws were present at creation: Jefferson himself and many of the signers of both foundational documents I have just mentioned owned slaves. Their actions spoke clearly that some human beings were not worthy of self-governance in the most fundamental ways.
Not only that, they were all landowners, men of wealth; the democracy they started was really a club of wealthy men in which neither women nor slaves, nor Indians, nor even the majority of white men, who did not own property, could participate. Accordingly, the society they founded became later, once industrialized, a plutocracy -- Greek for "government by the rich."
Enter Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself the scion of plutocrats, who created the modern political coalition that invented the American middle class, which did not really exist (other than in mythology) before 1932. It was a coalition that united labor, Americans of "immigrant" background (meaning other than colonist stock) and their churches (notably the Catholic Church and its labor priests) to bring about the first modest programs of social insurance. Later, the GI Bill created the first widespread, university-educated American middle class.
Like Jefferson, even FDR's coalition had a flaw: it made deals with the segregationist devil, the southern Democrats who are now Republicans. (Ever wonder why Ronald Reagan chose to begin his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were slaughtered, nod nod, wink wink?)
Now there's a chance to try again.
Let's not be naive. There is much that is ugly and contemptible in the emotions, prejudices and gut feelings of many Americans. The Democratic Party is not pure, either. (And winning one chamber of Congress is only a beginning.)
But perhaps this time the challenges are so pressing -- from saving social security and medicare from collapse, to addressing the yawning gaps in access to health care, to developing a new source of energy that does not doom humanity to extinction -- that, with leaders who thrive on hope rather than fear, the best can be coaxed out of all of us.
Happy days, happy happy days, might just be here again.
Friday, October 27, 2006
The news and the implications that cascade from it in my mind make me think of those Catholics I know who hold fast to the political version of what I call Stupid Catholic Logic. Let me explain SCL with a true story.
Once upon a time I worked with a former nun who had two rambunctious sons from two presumably rambunctious fathers, the only two men with whom she had had sex since leaving the convent. Had she considered using birth control while fornicating with such blissful abandon? "Oh, no, that would be a sin!"
The political version of SCL is what leads some dunderhead Catholics to vote Republican as a way to oppose abortion. Let me make clear that, for reasons different from theirs, I agree with them that abortion is always wrong.
To my mind, abortion always involves the risk of taking a human life since we just don't know with certainty when life begins. Still, what civil law should say about abortion is distinct from its place in moral philosophy. Law in a democracy expresses the sometimes errant wishes of the majority, not pure ethical principles.
A safer course than current U.S. law, however, might be to adopt the absolute ban in traditional Latin America law, which Nicaraguan law will adopt if the bill passed by its Congress is enacted. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who now professes to be a devout Catholic, could become next month the president who enacts the statute. (His nemesis Ronald Reagan, a very lapsed baptized Catholic to his dying day, never seemed to find time to make abortion illegal despite campaigning twice nationally on the promise to do just that.)
The Latin American legal principle is embedded in the American Convention On Human Rights. By a quirk of my employment history, I happened to be on hand when President Jimmy Carter signed the document on June 1, 1977 at the OAS General Secretariat, in Washington, D.C.
Signing the convention was a way for President Carter to affirm U.S. policy against human rights abuses, which were then rampant in the regimes of generals Cesar Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina and Ernesto Geisel of Brazil. Funny how in 30 short years the U.S. government has gone from defending to blatantly and explicitly violating human rights, while Latin American governments have become sterling democracies in which even former torturers are tried for their crimes.
Yet it struck me then, and it does now, that in article 4, paragraph 1, the document states:
Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.
Accordingly, it didn't surprise me that the pro-choice Carter Administration didn't push ratification too hard, since in U.S. law ratified treaties become a part of the federal code. But I have been amazed that in roughly 26 years of Republican ascendancy, in which the GOP controlled the Senate for a total of 6 years, not a single clever backbencher thought to bring up ratification of the charter as a stealth "pro-life" measure.
This despite the claim in the GOP's Catholic Team Web site, that Republicans have consistently worked to promote a "culture of life," a buzz phrase stolen outright from Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. Of course, it is easy to see how the broad economic and social terms in which the encyclical describes "life" might give the GOP's Catholic Team headaches, what with the concocted war in Iraq (which John Paul II pointedly opposed) and questionable domestic policies.
There simply is no Catholic logic left, stupid or smart, for voting Republican. Unless one simply enjoys being taken for a ride.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
An Oxford University professor specializing in the public understanding of science, Dawkins coined the term meme, which gained currency in intellectual circles after his 1976 work The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of cultural evolution that Dawkins theorized propagates itself like a gene; it is a unit of information transferable from one mind to another, such as tunes, catch-phrases, fashions.
The meme became itself a meme.
In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins has also recently contributed to evolutionary theory the notion that phenotypic effects, or the effects of the characteristics or an organism, are not limited to an organism's body but can stretch far into the environment, including into the bodies of other organisms.
Why this is a great contribution far exceeds my knowledge of science. Sorry. That is not why I went to see this grand personage speaking half a block from my abode.
Dawkins is also an ardent defender of atheism and critic of religion. The New York Times review I read Sunday said of his book that "There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy."
Tonight I heard mostly the imbecilities and the humor it prompts was quite amusing.
John Paul II, for example, became convinced that Our Lady of Fatima saved him from dying in the 1981 attempted assassination. "One might wonder why she didn't stop the bullet from hitting him at all," Dawkins remarked, "or whether the surgeons who worked on him for hours might deserve just a little credit. But most of all one might wonder what was happening with Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady Of Medjugorje or Our Lady of Knock; they must have been occupied with other errands."
Or, not to be shy, criticism does not elude Abraham the patriarch, the man Dawkins describes as fanatical to the point of murder of his own son, "Except, we learn, God was just joking that day."
He spoke also of the ethnic cleansing in the the biblical book of Joshua. Ethnic cleansing? Here it is:
And when in the seventh day going about, the priests sounded with the trumpets, Joshua said to all Israel: Shout: for the Lord hath delivered the city to you [...]
So all the people making a shout, and the trumpets sounding, when the voice and the sound thundered in the ears of the multitude, the walls forthwith fell down: and every man went up by the place that was over against him: and they took the city, and killed all that were in it, man and woman, young and old. The oxen also and the sheep, and the asses, they slew with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:16,20-21)
Dawkins recounted that the text was given to Israeli schoolchildren and they were asked to say whether they agreed with what happened and two-thirds did, saying that God had, after all, promised the land to the Jews. Then the text was modified and instead of Joshua and Hebrews, it contained the name of General Lin and the Chinese. Three-fourths of a different set of Israeli children disapproved and said the killing was immoral.
Dawkins' point was that the morality of the Bible is not the natural ethics that springs to most of us -- believers have to pick and choose the moral parts and ignore the immoral.
As I saw myself laugh and assent with so many others; however, I was reminded of being in church. Here was an atheist sermon, given by a popular preacher. The bookstore was standing room only barely minutes after the scheduled start time.
The people were a little peculiar, just as in church. Not necessarily people one would choose as friends -- although I was later told by my companion that I am a little peculiar myself, a little geeky with the odd button missing from a shirt and the odd stain on another.
Even the preacher had to admit that atheism required a little faith.
Technically, Dawkins said, he is an agnostic, as no one can prove the nonexistence of God. "We are all agnostics about everything from fairies to Zeus to Yahweh," he said. "We go about life as if they did not exist, quite confident they don't, even though of course we can't prove it."
Sunday, October 08, 2006
This was my experience yesterday, when the receptionist at the HMO asked me for my membership card as I arrived for treatment. Then she added "and a picture ID."
Being the sort of fellow who will one day get arrested for making forbidden jokes in this trivially overserious society, I wondered out loud who would want to pretend to be as sick as I felt.
"Someone without health insurance," she said, in a tone that unmistakably bespoke experience.
Suddenly I felt like the rats fleeing the Saigon U.S. Embassy in 1975, protected by gates and Marines from a crowd jostling to get out of town by sundown. Without further ado, the well-spoken, mild-mannered HMO gatekeeper had welcomed me in and made certain to keep others out.
Someone else would be denied a human right to which I acceded merely because I am me. In case you wonder at the term "human right," here it is in article 25, paragraph 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care ...
We are a society that violates human rights to the point that we ration medical care.
Incidentally, the latest figure at this writing for the number of Americans lacking health insurance is 46.6 million, or 15.9 percent of the U.S. population (2005) -- in absolute or percentage terms, this is a record high.
This is not something the richest country in the world need live with, like the common cold. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree. There are cures for the health insurance problem that fall well short of revolution.
In Australia, Britain, Canada, and most of Europe, the number and percentage of the population without access to regular health care for economic reasons is zero.
There is no good reason the United States can't match that -- except greed and selfishness.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
You have to read the entire remarks -- not just the soundbites about the "devil" President Bush. Chavez masterfully shows just how well he understands the United States and how little the reverse is true.
Alluding to Bush's assertion that "my country wants peace," Chavez stated:
That's true. If we walk in the streets of the Bronx, if we walk around New York, Washington, San Diego, in any city, San Antonio, San Francisco, and we ask individuals, the citizens of the United States, what does this country want? Does it want peace? They'll say yes.
The speech also shows just how completely U.S. government obduracy concerning Chavez has galvanized the Arab League, Latin American nations and even Europe into a bloc so utterly annoyed as to support granting Venezuela a seat on the U.N. Security Council -- just to irritate the U.S. delegation.
The odd thing is that Venezuela, which was for years little more than the Latin American country estate of the Rockefeller family, was historically the staunchest of U.S. allies in its region. Well handled, the country could have remained close enough, even under Chavez.
The problem is that the U.S. foreign policy establishment just won't take a potential lukewarm friend if a passionate enemy can be had.
The saga of Chavez's Venezuela brings to mind the country of another past demonizer of the United States, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's Iran -- just as it recalls Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- all formerly allied countries turned battlegrounds.
This is the work product of the pinstriped diplomats at Foggy Bottom and their spy colleagues across the river in Langley, Virginia -- not jihadists.
Iran was a peaceable, Western-friendly kingdom in the early 1950s, when a democratic-minded nationalist, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized what was then called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later changed to British Petroleum and now BP).
In a move that in hindsight seems deliciously ironic, the CIA paid Iranians to create disturbances disguised as Muslim clerics to set the climate for the 1954 coup that installed the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The secularist Shah modernized industry but remained in power until 1979 thanks to the CIA-trained secret police SAVAK, known for decades after for its torture chambers.
Without the Dulles brothers running the State Department and the CIA at the time of the 1954 coup, Iran had every prospect of evolving into a parliamentary democracy, albeit influenced by the local Islamic culture. Instead, 25 years of smoldering wrath brought the mullahs and ayatollahs and their radicalized agenda.
Radicalized by whom, you ask? By the U.S. government's stupid disregard for cultural subtleties and its disdain for democracy abroad. In 1954, Iran could have satisfied its pride by owning its oil; now it wants nuclear weapons.
Will Iranian nuclear weapons go to Iraq's rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr or to Osama bin Laden? It's not in Teheran's interests to provide such power to loose cannons.
But leave it to the Ugly Americans at State and the torturers at the CIA and, hell, Iran will help Al Sharpton go nuclear -- just to show it can.
Friday, September 15, 2006
When Franklin Roosevelt vowed to defeat two enemies across two oceans, he could not have foreseen D-Day and Iwo Jima -- but he would not have been surprised at the outcome. When Harry Truman promised American support for free peoples resisting Soviet aggression, he could not have foreseen the rise of the Berlin Wall -- but he would not have been surprised to see it brought down.
Yet the characters of the patrician Franklin Roosevelt and the plain-speaking Truman were the furthest from that of George W. Bush, a profoundly lazy, overprivileged and mendacious man.
Why don't he and his fellow Republicans point to their own great presidents instead of attempting to steal luster from the heroes of their opposition's party?
Afraid to remind us of Herbert Hoover? The 31st president not only failed to respond to the Great Depression, but in July 1932 sent troops against poor World War I veterans encamped in the Washington Mall demanding the payment of a promised postwar bonus.
Or how about Richard Nixon? Is Bush afraid to recall Tricky Dick's burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex?
We all know now that Ronald Reagan was probably hiding Alzheimers during at least part of the longest role of his acting career, in which the White House was his stage. We also know that he was too cowardly to accept blame for the Iran-Contra scandal that involved his immediate staff: first he denied the whole thing, then he denied the drug dealing. For all the eponymous airports and buildings, who wants to suggest emulating Reagan too closely?
Is Dwight David Eisenhower's affair with Kay Summersby the reason why Republicans so rarely cite the postwar president? GOPers active in the 1980s and 90s purported to abhor the taint of adultery -- except when adulterers Newton Leroy Gingrich, 1998 House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston and Rep. Henry Hyde had their "youthful indiscretions" unveiled to the public.
Or how about Calvin Coolidge and his response to the flooding of Louisiana in 1927? Was he FEMA's model for Hurricane Katrina in 2005? (It might be recalled that Coolidge's flood relief man was then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose relief efforts eventually got him to the White House; note also the parallel that Hoover's abandonment of black flood refugees led to the final parting of African Americans from the party of Lincoln.)
Mention the name Warren Harding and what comes up but the Teapot Dome scandal?
Theodore Roosevelt is admired as a conservationist and political reformer in New York. But he was also a rough-rider in Cuba, in a war against Spain that was a travesty of naked and racist expansionism in which no decent man should have participated.
Bush might be more familiar with the experience of Rutherford B. Hayes, who snatched a contested and fradulent election from Democrat Samuel Tilden, the 19th century Al Gore, who won the popular vote but failed by one vote to win in the electoral college.
Does anyone at this late date forget that the Ulysses Grant administration was the most corrupt in the 19th century?
Finally, we come to the grand old man who invented the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, a man who was not, in fact, as honest as he is portrayed in his hagiography.
His Emancipation Declaration was pure rhetoric, as it freed slaves in territory his armies did not control but left untouched those in Union territories. The man who professed veneration for government of the people and by the people jailed the entire legislature of Maryland for the duration of the Civil War, lest they decide to secede.
In any case, now that the GOP is so full of white Southerners who never forgave the Democrtic Party's proposal and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even mentioning Lincoln's eloquence and his virtues probably does not play well among Bush's partisans.
Little surprise, then, that George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans need Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who saved this country from abject poverty and European fascism, and Harry Truman, who completed FDR's work and desegregated the armed forces. Perhaps this is why Republicans are forever mentioning them, along with the charismatic John F. Kennedy and party founder Thomas Jefferson, and why they never quote the wit and wisdom of Hoover, Nixon, and Harding.
Without a doubt, the Democratic Party is not unblemished; presidents elected on the party's slate were not saints. But Democrats need not call upon the words and deeds of Republican leaders to justify their policies.
That's because throughout history Republican presidents have produced the most complete catalogue of misdeeds to avoid.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
In vain the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first of its kind, proclaimed:
The non-renewable resources of the earth must be employed in such a way as to guard against the danger of their future exhaustion and to ensure that benefits from such employment are shared by all mankind.
Back then, I believed in God, goodness, and a better world of more justly apportioned resources.
Still, I had some reason to find unintentional humor in such conferences. My father, who attended the Stockholm conference, failed to see the irony in his using that very trip to purchase a brand-new blue Saab in Sweden, crowing that he did so at some obscure tax advantage.
Thirty-four years later, today, I find myself walking to a crosstown thoroughfare on the way to the Metro and before me is a long, long line of sportscars, SUVs, and other vehicles, most carrying one passenger, the driver.
Most scientists agree that between 2010 and 2020 the world's supply of petroleum will fall below international demand. This was more or less known in 1972. The predictions then were that it would happen by 2005 or 2010.
Malthusian pessimism errs somewhat, but we never seem to get the point, anyway.
Blithely we believe we can commute in our pollute-mobiles one-by-one, as our parents did 30 years ago, while radical theofascists, who long for 1922 or 1902 rather than 1972, push us to war, famine, pestilence, and death.
But I forget ... what's so great about humankind, anyway?
Haven't we despoiled our planet, murdered mercilessly, stolen savagely, lied lavishly? Haven't we turned a deaf ear to all warnings? We deserve the strife and struggle, the death rattle of civilization that can already be heard. The end. The silent nothingness that awaits us.
The world will be better without us. Still it's not easy to go from everythingness, in vision and in life, to nothingness and nihilism.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
"The important thing is kindness," my friend said.
"The important thing is to be kind to everyone."
Years ago I believed that. If all we shared, if all loved each other, if… If nothing! What is this mass of humans, this human anthill, for? To sell, to buy, to eat, to have sex, to bathe, to sleep. To wake up to repeat the same thing.
We don't love, we don't share. We are deeply and irremediably selfish.
We get to want one another, now and then. That is to say, we share selfishness: she fulfills him, he fulfills her, they run together selling, buying, eating, having sex, bathing, sleeping, waking, repeating.
From time to time an altruistic impulse arises; it's selfishness more carefully camouflaged: I want to feel I am good.
We don't deserve kindness.
Friday, August 25, 2006
What first will strike you, if you try it, is that you don't know when it will happen. You can't put at what age you died, or where, or what the cause of death was. Obvious, maybe, but try thinking of it.
Will you die at 59 as your father did, or at 90 as your grandfather? Will it be in your sleep or will your body be strapped to a dozen machines in some antiseptic room? Will it be near the familiar neighborhood in which you spent most of your life, or even perhaps where you grew up, or will it happen far, far away?
The second great unknown, particularly if you are famous only at your home dinner table, is what you might be noted for at the end of your life.
Will you be known for the job you held for 20-odd years? For some silly phrase you don't even know about? What if your most decisive act hasn't happened yet? Will you make some discovery, climb some mountain, achieve something that adds to the knowledge or collective experience of humankind in some mildly unique way of which you have yet to conceive?
For the better part of three decades I've written in inverted-pyramid style. The most important and foundational facts come first, then the details. It's classic news style.
But if you don't know the most important fact, then the hook of the whole story is missing.
If between now and the day you die you cure cancer, which you haven't a clue how to do today, whatever obit you draft today is useless. Granted, if you do discover a cure for cancer, every newspaper in the world will pay the best wordsmiths to eulogize and obituarize you.
For the more likely scenario, writing your own obituary is impossible. At best you can draft it, suggesting facts to be added by someone else.
But here's what strikes me as a third insight. Provided you are not bed-ridden (although Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped! in bed), it is still possible to decide to bring about the fact or facts you would like to see in your obituary.
You still have a chance, one that day by day diminishes, to shoot for that obituary hoop. It's not a slam dunk in most instances.
Speaking for myself, I am highly unlikely to become President of the United States (although I do note that I am a -- corporate -- president in the United States). Cancer cure was already noted. No Olympic medal seems in my future.
Indeed, at my age, it is most likely that I have done everything of note that I will ever do.
Most people would refer to me as middle-aged, although it's not exactly certain that I have reached the chronological midpoint of my life. The oldest person alive I could find is María Capovilla of Ecuador, born on September 14, 1889, which at this writing makes her 116. By that standard, I still have a few years to go to the midpoint.
Of course, the actuarial odds are against me: women live longer than men. In any case, I can't imagine that I will have the capacity to write the Great American Novel in the next 20 years, especially since I haven't had it in the very much more vital 20 years past.
You might be younger, have a broader shot. My one warning: this game of life is played faster than you think.
The only thing you or I may be able to alter at this point is our private obituary. That's the obituary written in the hearts of those who knew us.
A few (how many?) will not mourn me at all, but actually rejoice. A few others may suddenly recall my name and wonder that I wasn't dead already. Many will never find out that I have died.
The hardy few who endured knowing me or those who, like my sons, can't avoid me, what will their obituary say?
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
On a list in which I participate, Kal offers the following Israeli version of the story:
[peaceful flutes playing...]
Palestinians do not exist. Geographical Palestine was empty. Jews on the other hand existed, and they had no homeland (they were floating in the air I suppose). So the UN offered them Palestine as a gift, and they gratefully accepted it. There were no rightful citizens of it to object to that peaceful transaction.
[Insert video clip showing UN officials handing over ownership papers to smiling Jewish leaders...]
And then evil Arabs came out of nowhere. [horror music roars...]
Upset by the peace and liberty that their new neighbors enjoy, they were determined to spread fear and destruction.
[Insert images of destruction and Arabs on horses...]
The New Israelis were determined to defend Freedom and Good against the forces of Evil. [marching drums and nationalistic music...] A new Israeli Army was formed, consisting of Doctors, Philosophers, Artists, and other beautiful people to resist
the toothless Arabs' invasion.
[Insert clip of masked Arabs shooting babies...]
Kal offers the disclaimer that he was born in Jerusalem to a Christian family and has an Israeli birth certificate (but not citizenship) as well as an expired Palestinian travel document.
Now the Arab fantasy history:
[sad violin background...]
In the beginning, all inhabitants of Palestine were perfect Muslim people. They treated the Christian and Jewish minorities with great respect, and gave them more rights and less duties than the average Muslim citizen. These People of the Book lived their Golden Age under Islamic Rule, and they all greatly enjoyed their trouble free life.
[show clip of a priest drinking coffee with an imam...]
Then the Jewish Elders of Zion, on a mission to take over the World, and the Christian Crusaders of the West, conspired to destroy the Arabs. [tanks, bombs, and airplanes sound effects...] They decided that Palestine was a good entry point in the Middle East, towards creating Greater Israel, consisting of lands from the Euphrates to the Nile. And without any provocation of any kind, they continuously murdered Arabs throughout the second half of the last century, in order to eliminate them from their lands.
[show dirty crying Arab boy standing under Israeli flag... make sure you skip the part where his mother spanked him for playing soccer in his new outfit, which is really why he's crying...]
Arab Muslims, backed by the good Christians and Jews of Palestine, rose up to the challenge. [piano...] Their mission is to restore superior morality and to end the rule of corrupt Crusader culture, and to recreate the Islamic State of Palestine, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians can relive their Golden Age of happiness, morality, and prosperity.
[show rabbi walking next to priest, skipping the part where it's obvious they're in New York, not in Palestine...]
Perhaps if such stories could be swapped and edited there might be some hope for peace. Meanwhile, we can at least enjoy a good, dark laugh.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Mimi, nee Margarita Mimi Baez, was the sister of superstar folksinger Joan Baez, but she was best known as the feminine half of Richard and Mimi Fariña, the husband-and-wife dulcimer and guitar duo that flourished in the mid-1960s.
While digitizing the beloved, pristine LPs of their music that I've kept through the decades, I discovered that the two albums I have were recorded in 1964 and 1965. I didn't discover them until 1971, when I graduated from Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell to Bluegrass and some singers of whom no one but true-and-tried folkies have heard.
I mean real folk music that has not been mass-marketed, engineered -- or, as Paul Simon memorably put it in A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Lyndon Johnsoned Into Submission), referring to the recording engineer and music entrepreneurs who built him into a commercial legend,
I been Phil Spectored, resurrected.Real folk music is found in the memorable year 2000 film Songcatcher, about a musicologist who, while visiting her sister's rural school in Appalachia, stumbles upon ancient Scots-Irish ballads and decides to record them sung by memory, just as they were passed down, from generation to generation. You hear purely performed a capella singing, occasionally the intervention of a stringed instrument, and lyrics that tell stories of woe, of faith, of warning to playful young maidens and hasty young men.
I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.
That's more or less the way Richard and Mimi Fariña played, even though Richard attended Cornell University and penned his college-age early writings in the company of folks such as the future novelist Thomas Pynchon, while Mimi swirled in her sister's wake of folk stars (even Bob Dylan, the god, accompanies them in a few tracks).
For a brief two years their musical stars were ascending with a sound that was old and new, delicate and challenging all at once in the then-little-heard sound of the dulcimer and guitar. Then came the fateful surprise birthday party for Mimi on April 30, 1966, and the motorcycle accident that killed Richard instantly.
That day Richard Fariña joined the pantheon of heroes of the 1960s whose lives were unexpectedly cut short. The memorial wall, were there one, would begin with John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.; the names would include the enigmatic, energy-filled Lusitanian-Celtic, enigmatic young singer with promise Richard Fariña; then it would pass through Jimi Hendrix, to end perhaps with Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in the late-1970s, or John Lennon, killed like Kennedy, closing the circle.
Richard Fariña might not have distinguished himself for his music without Mimi. But he certainly left behind an unreadable little novel with a title that often comes to mind: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.
Upon hearing their music again after several years I googled them, hoping to see middle-aged Mimi with at least a few extra pounds to match my own, a middle-aged woman to whom it didn't seem to have looked so down way back when. She had been stuck with the role of widow of the young creative hero, which apparently wreaked havoc with her romantic life, much the way being stuck with being Joan Baez's sister didn't help her musical confidence.
Middle age has a way of softening things. She was getting ready to retire from music in the year 2000, following the 25th anniversary of a famous prison concert in which she had played with her sister. Fate denied her a ride into the sunset: she was diagnosed with cancer and died a year later.
Makes me wonder. According to Nobelist author Nikos Kazantzakis, Jesus' last temptation occurred on the cross, when he had one last option to recant and die an old man surrounded by his wife and grandchildren.
So even now I'm left to wonder what would life had looked like had Kennedy and King, Fariña and Ochs and Brel, the young disappeared of Argentina, the dead in Vietnam and the Congo, Patrice Lumumba and Che Guevara, had everyone lived to be old, their life's work rounded out to match their bodies.
Maybe the young existential angst, the earnestness, the deadly conflicts and issues, the poignant music and poetry, and life itself, all might have seemed so silly, so trivial, so beside the real point for so long.
Then, maybe and at last, it would all now look like up to all of us.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Indeed, the U.S. military has always been mostly ineffective, with bumbling tactics, worse strategy and useless leadership, depite its sheer mass at certain moments in history. Let's go through some of that history, briefly.
- Iraq ... well, even Weekly Standard editor William Kristol admitted on The Charlie Rose Show last night that "defeat" is a possibility.
- Is there anyone still denying that the United States lost in Vietnam?
- Korea: a stalemate that could have been a disaster if Douglas MacArthur had had his way. The diplomats extricated U.S. troops out of war.
- World War II: the United States entered late and essentially fought one Axis power, Japan, who surrendered at the threat of further atomic bombing; on the European theater, the U.S.S.R. defeated Germany at Stalingrad. In any case, it was not a victory of tactics and strategy.
- World War I: again, the United States entered late, when the war was already stalemated.
Our military is congenitally incapable of conquering anything -- always has been, always will be. That's because we've never been a militarily conquering nation (except when it involved our own nationbuilding).
Want to know our real strength?
The strength of the United States is the dynamism of its economy, its resources, its geographic position, its relative transparency, coupled with the instinctively egalitarian social and political democratic experiment in which it functions.
The American empire is economic, social and political. Ours was the first country in the world to take its name from an idea -- a union of states -- rather than a place name.
During what I now call World War III (the Cold War), Garry Wills once famously asserted that a Russian invasion would be halted at the first McDonald's. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has updated that notion with his McDonald's Theory of Conflict Prevention: no two countries that have a McDonald's will ever go to war with each other.
Finding chinks in the theory, Friedman has had to change it to something grander and more complex, as he told Wired: "No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain like Dell's will fight against each other as long as they are both part of that supply chain."
American consumer goods (even if they are made in China) are seductive the world over. The may sneer and complain, but teenagers everywhere love Coke, bluejeans and T-shirts with American logos.
But that's only part of the story.
The other part is a certain social and economic mobility and a tendency towards broadly distributed wealth, which together make possible mass consumption.
Whenever these two have been ascendant, the United States has shone brightly in the world. Everyone admires our capacity to improve and adapt to the leadership of great men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. We became the envy of the world when our factory workers could afford ranch houses and stationwagons and even to send a talented child to college.
Why are we at war with the Islamic world? Because they have no realistic hope of ever participating in an economy and a democracy anywhere close to ours -- and it's absurd to think of installing them by force in Afghanistan and Iraq -- so they have nothing to lose by committing suicide crashing planes against our buildings and blowing up our allies.
That's why more war is not the answer. Instead, the answer has to come from our historic strengths: expanding civil liberties (not contracting them in the name of a false "security") and a widely distributed rising standard of living that ripples outward.
However, this is slipping even here on the American home front. President Bush's domestic policy of stealing from the poor to give to the rich strike at the heart of what is most appealing about the United States: the notion that everyone can accede to a basic common level of prosperity.
We can't credibly sell abroad what we ourselves are destroying at home. When people watch scenes of the poor black population of a major American city abandoned to die after a flood, everyone can see that the American Dream has become just a facade.
The world is not stupid.
To bring the conflict with the Islamic world to at least the level of tolerance we need to show the world we are still a beacon of civil liberties and still a prosperous nation in which hardships and rewards are shared equitably.
We need to change the so-called "war on terror" into a "campaign to share our good fortune." (Someone will come up with something catchier.)
Turn the internal problems from the Department of Homeland Security, which is an abysmal collection of dysfunctional agencies, to Wall Street and the Salvation Army, with the mission of unleashing a bonanza of credit, consumer goods and employment, starting in the slums of the South Bronx and East St. Louis and extending to the Muslim communities in the Western world.
Shift the handling of the Middle East from the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom to Madison Avenue and Caritas, until we find ourselves dispatching our youths to drop Big Macs, instead of bombs, all over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and even Lebanon.
Everyone the world over has known our business prowess since Benjamin Franklin. Even in the 1836, when the country groaned to deliver itself of the "peculiar institution" of slavery, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the American tendency toward generosity.
Going back to being real Americans again ... that's the answer!
Friday, August 11, 2006
I haven't gone to a Catholic Mass in four years, feel no need to do, quite the contrary. Still, I follow the shenanigans at the Vatican and in the American hierarchy, for which I used to work, much like Trotsky watching from Mexico the revolution in the Kremlin gone Stalinist -- without Leon's cachet or his famous mistresses.
People ask why I care and I don't have a easy answer. Perhaps the old Loyola epigram is true: "give me a boy at the age of seven and I give you the man." My strongest formative influences were celibate, vowed men.
For others, there's also cultural Catholicism, which is more or less the notion that one's grandparents were Catholic and in one's family "we've always done this." This is limited to baptisms, first communions, confirmation, weddings and burials; to manners and genteel words and even the occasional charity.
This never exerted much of a pull for me. Celibate vowed men leave family traditions behind. "Let the dead bury the dead," Jesus told a would-be follower who wanted to bury his father before following him.
For me there was always a truth kernel in the gospel that resonated, indeed resonates. What must be done is very clear and simple, if only I would dare: feed the hungry, give to drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. Tell the truth, respect what belongs to others, ignore other people's wealth, nurture and protect life. Little or nothing about churchgoing or Bible reading.
Most of us complicate it with theologies, exceptions and fancy dancing that allow us to temporize while we enjoy our dollar-driven, consumption-directed lives and pretend that we are really taking the gospel's simple imperatives seriously.
What's specifically Catholic about this? That I am not the arbiter, the interpreter or much less the transmitter. That the truth is the truth, whether I like it or not. That even the pope can't unsay it.
I am a philosophical absolutist with all the doubts and scant few certitudes of an agnostic. If there is a God, it's not up to me to define God or agree with what God wants done.
There probably isn't a God. Here all of us who temporize and avoid what God wants of us can sign on the dotted line: we're unbelievers. If there were a God and we believed that, we would be seriously concerned about what God wants (and how little of it we fulfill).
Yet something keeps tugging, something keeps urging: somewhere there is a good that has my name on it for me to do. And I had nothing to do with it being there. All I can do is find it and embrace it, or find it and walk away.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Tavernise's story, headlined "Charity Wins Deep Loyalty for Hezbollah," begins with a security guard who recounts that the militant Shi'a group whose name in Arabic means Party of God, paid for his wife's Caesarean section and an operation on his broken nose, and brought food to his home when he lost his job. Slowly you get the sense that the entire Shi'a community benefits from the largesse of Hezbollah.
Reminds me of the Black Panthers' breakfast programs for children in Oakland, Calif. Or the communal free meals in the town of Assisi once organized by the Communist Party in starving postwar Italy.
One wonders why Israel, according to the CIA Factbook the world's 54th (out of 233) largest gross domestic product of $154 billion, as opposed to Lebanon's 108th economy in the world ($23.6 billion annual GDP), couldn't try the same thing.
It's not as if U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have been resoundingly successful. Nor is it as if Israel's bombardment of civilians in Lebanon has won Eretz Israel the Brotherhood Award of the Year. Quite the contrary on both counts.
Here is where the ancient advice becomes eminently practical.
In the New Testament, Jesus says "You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you." (Matthew 5-43-44).
This passage might suggest that Judaism, the religion of Jesus and his apostles, was a faith of revenge, yet that is not true. The book of Exodus' "An eye for an eye" (21:23) was a humane improvement on disproportional punishment in the ancient world. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible instructs believers "Seek not revenge" (Lev. 19:18.) and has God declare that "Vengeance is mine." (Deut. 32:35).
Nor is the religion of Islam, the religion of Osama bin Laden and Hezbollah, a religion of hatred and vengeance, as the Quran, in Sura 5:45, in a spirit very similar to the Jewish Torah, says: And We ordained therein for them: Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth and wounds equal for equal. But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiation.
How different our current events might have been if on Sept. 12, 2001, President Bush had proclaimed that the United States would not respond to violence with violence, but would challenge Al Qaeda to a contest of charity.
Imagine, then, our B-52s, B-1s and B-2s showering the poorest areas of the Middle East with food and medical supplies.
What could Osama have said? That he rejected these gifts? That he would not join in a competition to see who could be more generous? Who in the Arab world would have supported such peevish stances?
Imagine also what might happen if Israel built schools, hospitals and brought food for the Shi'as of southern Lebanon, challenging the Hezbollah not to a contest of explosions but of generosity.
Here's where Hezbollah has shown the way.