Friday, August 25, 2006

Drafting One's Own Obituary

In the annual four-week retreat prescribed for all Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola proposed that the first week be devoted to contemplation of the consequences of sin, including one's prospects after death. This came to mind to me as I began drafting my obituary.

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

Fantasy Histories

A new cyber-acquaintance who seems to know whereof he speaks offers two versions of history, Israeli and Arab, that not only amuse but also throw some light on the conflicts in the Middle East.

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

What Would It Have Looked Like Now?

Few aftershocks from what is now yesteryear, to my great surprise, equal my discovery yesterday that Mimi Fariña died five years ago this summer. You have to be a bit of a folk music aficionado to even remember Mimi and it helps to have lived through the 1960s.

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.
I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.
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.

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

Why War Is Not the Answer

In all the discussions I have had over Iraq and the Middle East and, in fact, over the worsening world, everyone in the United States seems to forget one thing: military strength is not the basis of U.S. power and influence in the world.

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.
The point is not to denigrate the efforts and suffering of individual soldiers, but merely to note that purely military means did not achieve what our schoolchildren are misleadingly taught as "victories," nor our did they gain our position in the world since 1918.

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

Leon in Winter

Catholic childhood indoctrination is strong. For a number of reasons, adult attachment can be very strong, too.

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

A Lesson from Hezbollah

A fascinating front-page New York Times story today is worth the biblical "price beyond rubies." I'm referring to a filing by correspondent Sabrina Tavernise that tells us that the Hezbollah "has provided essential services for years to Lebanon'’s poor Shiites, settling into their lives."

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.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Time to Cut Israel Off

Qana has become the new Guernica.

As in the aerial bombardment of the Basque city of Guernica, Spain, on April 26, 1937, by a Luftwaffe squadron, the dropping of precision-guided bombs by Israeli warplanes on July 30, 2006, on the Lebanese village of Qana amounts to the same thing: a site of senseless murder of children.

There is as yet no poet to console the mothers of Qana, "Do not weep, madre, God will fill their bullet holes with candy," nor is there a Picasso to scream outrage in paint.

But there is one thing we in the United States can do: stop funding Israel's military adventures.

If we do not, you and I in America become responsible for the dead children of Qana: our taxes and our votes have made them possible to the tune of $3 billion a year, not counting loans and loan guarantees and other forms of aid that some estimate may yield a total 10 times that figure, or even higher.

This is about 15 percent of all U.S. foreign aid. U.S. aid to the 6 million Israelis equals all aid to the 840 million people in the entire continent of Africa. This is disproportionate.

What is the purpose to be served by aid to Israel? Israel is not and has never been a poor country. Our aid to Israel does not gain the United States influence; on the contrary, our troops are dying in Iraq because of our ties to Israel. Why continue, then?

Culturally and religiously, our ties to the State of Israel, founded in 1948, are much more tenuous than the Israel lobby would have us believe, certainly not enough to justify the $85 billion the United States has given it since its founding.

Let's say, for example, that the United States should give aid to Israel because there are Jewish citizens who wants this. First of all, U.S. Jewish support for the State of Israel is not unanimous; many orthodox rabbis at the time of the country's independence thought it was an enormous heresy to establish Israel before the Messiah came to do so.

Even if there were unanimous support, according to the U.S. Census, there are 5.1 million U.S. Jews, who make up less than 2 percent of the population. Given that there are 37.8 million African Americans, or 12.8 percent of the population, shouldn't aid to Africa total multiples of aid to Israel or, conversely, aid to Israel be sliced downward several multiples?

I once admired the plucky Israelis, their social democracy and their self-defense. Over time, however, it has become clear that Israeli social democracy serves only those of the right ethnic background and their "defense" has become a constant attack. Israel even elected as prime minister a war criminal, Ariel Sharon, who was responsible for the 1982 Sabra-Shatila, Lebanon, massacre.

The new attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon, along with the bombing of UN posts to eliminate possible neutral witnesses, leave the observer no choice but to conclude that Israel has lamentably become a rogue nation.

Whatever Israel chooses to do now, it must do on its own -- without U.S. support, or dollars.