Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Thank You" to GIs?

Heartinsanfrancisco's blog has provoked me again and this time, I won't cogitate, write and rewrite endlessly before responding. She proposes sending thankyou cards to the U.S. troops in Iraq.

No. I disagree. For a million reasons, none of them intending the slightest disrespect to Heart, whose posts force me to think out my views.

First of all, there's the matter of soldiering and moral responsibility: following orders is not an excuse. I already explained my views in detail in the post titled On Armistice Day.

Second, these folks weren't even drafted. They volunteered. They're being paid. When they come home they will get medical and educational benefits that Americans who have not trained to commit homicide on order can only dream of ... on our dime. We've all said and will continue to say "thank you" any number of ways, many of them against my will.

Third, the whole American love affair with veterans and the supposed patriotism of war (Dulce et Decorum Est?) is a rank falsehood, designed to con the least educated, the poorest to be used as cannon fodder for the bond traders, the jetsetting CEOs and the glitterati.

Fourth, and this goes to the specifics of Heart's post (but, again, not the author personally), the whole notion of a company paying for thankyou cards is PR. Xerox wants everyone to know how good they are, how "patriotic" -- and to keep buying Xerox products.

To say "thank you" allays our complicity in the con and the merchandising of war as good.

Yet how can we possibly take pride that our society is capable of producing amoral men and women capable of aiding and abetting atrocity committed in our name, such as Lynndie England and Charles Graner at Abu Ghraib. Their explanation? They did not know it was wrong.

Thank you? More like "you make me sick and ashamed."

Where is the military person of principle who resisted the invasion and participation in the occupation of a country that did nothing to us? Where is the soldier with courage of conviction?

Insofar as I am concerned, they are all cowardly mercenaries -- killers for hire -- and I sure as hell never wanted them hired. Not for Iraq, Grenada, Panama, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic ... shall I go on?

Yes, I did say "cowardly." When the one superpower with an intact nuclear arsenal, possessing a military that is larger than the next ten armed forces put together, takes on -- unprovoked -- a 50th-rate ragtag army of a poor country, that's called cowardly bullying.

So, no thank you from me. Yes, I am sorry for the mothers who lost their children in an insane war project that I opposed from beginning to end. I don't know how Bush can even sleep knowing he wasted thousands of lives for ... what?

But if these mothers' children had stood up for decency and principles with courage, and refused to go, they would all most likely be alive today. The ones who went and survived are no heroes to me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Christian Ecology

In the end, if the teachings of the Christian gospels were fully lived out, history would be replaced by a life of universal Zen-like, other-directed detachment. Humanity would be kind, simple, chaste and ultimately extinct, like the Shakers.
'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
                                                               (Shaker hymn)
Then war and misery and pollution would cease. Species of plants and animals would retake the space we once occupied. The world might then be a place of natural entropy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

45 Years Ago

I thought I would never recover from that afternoon on November 22, 1963. Even a year later I cried watching the USIA film "John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums." Everybody who was alive remembers where they were when they heard about the shots in Dallas.

In fact, the whole idea of remembering where you were when ... that started then.

I was on a 5th grade field trip to the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, also known as the Pink House because its exterior walls are painted in an amalgam of the fighting colors of each side in a long civil war in the 19th century -- red and white.

It was the one place sure to hear about the events in Dallas almost instantaneously. And so it happened. We were waiting to go into one of the ceremonial rooms when a man walked up to another saying, "We have to tell the president that Kennedy's been shot."

The tour ended sometime later in a blur. One of the teachers had our school bus stop by a news kiosk and bought a tabloid with the start headline that confirmed that something had happened.

The headline hedged and the paper was, from what I knew, hugely disreputable and purchased only for fun. Someone had once called to my attention a photo of a pugilist it ran with the caption "Here is [boxer I can't recall] as he will look when he climbs down from his plane from Europe tomorrow."

So, of course, it wasn't true. Right? It couldn't have happened. Right? In the United States ... then, wait ... Abraham Lincoln came into focus.

The bus stopped again at another kiosk where a teacher bought a second edition of a more reputable evening paper.

Not only had he been shot, he was dead!

"It was the Russians!" said my grandmother.

"It was the Cubans!" said another relative.

"It was the Germans!" exclaimed my mother's foot doctor, a European Jew with some reason to mistrust Germans.

We still don't know who it was and at this point it no longer matters.

The event changed all of us. A significant part of the hopeful, optimistic, can-do, largely admired, at worst envied land, verging on fulfilling its promise to do better by humanity, that USA died that day. If I ever believed in a happy ending for history, that stopped that day.

I had no inkling of what it would feel like 45 years later. At the ripe old age of 11, I wrote a letter to the pope, asking that Kennedy be canonized as a martyr. How oddly funny it seems today!

Yet my own childish sentiment was very little different from those of poor and simple people living in huts in Latin America and slums of Brooklyn where they keep their pictures or statuettes of the Virgin Mary next to their picture of Kennedy, decades later still smiling, still inspiring hope.

Even this past year, we flea-bitten, media-savvy, Watergated and Vietnamed and Bushwacked Americans saw in a black senator from Illinois something "Kennedyesque" that moved us all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Human Loneliness

When Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, settled on a title for her autobiography, it was "The Long Loneliness," in part a reference to the lover she lost for her faith, in part a reflection on the human condition. We all endure the long loneliness.

This came to me last weekend when the company of a special friend was denied me and I realized that I do not have many friends at all, despite living in the same city now for roughly 30 years.

Speaking with friends and mulling this over, I also realize that part of the reason is that I am overly critical. The vast majority of people are tedious: they talk about themselves, their possessions, their trips, their lifestyle and their work.

The friends one knew in college, those with whom one could talk about politics and philosophy until the wee hours while nursing beers warm, they are all gone. Maybe they never existed.

Deep in the human heart there is instead a gaping gnawing, living hole. A black hole that tells us that, in the end, we're all on our own.

Friends will call you when they want something, want to tell you something. We know that humanity is essentially self-interested.

Lovers may assuage the loneliness, but they will never fill it. I have a broken marriage as witness.

In the absence of a God, there is nothing to fill that void that is felt most acutely when we are alone and in need. As in the story of Jesus, we will all know the experience of being deserted by everyone.

The human loneliness explains a multitude of endeavors -- religion, love, literature and art, the search of riches and power and sex -- yet none of them ever overcome that sense of living without rhyme or reason, loveless, artless, without any real wealth or security in the end, questionably or temporarily attractive, in a word, alone.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Blog Post of Laughter and Forgetting

As I forget my identification at home, or my wallet, or my head when it is not attached, I am reminded of the title of Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It occurs to me that we Boomers are entering a stage in which the Orwellian destruction of memory against which Kundera protests is inevitable.

I was always an absent-minded professor, someone who has known me since my 20s reminds me. Even I recall that I always fought against my forgetting and perennial messiness, with decidedly mixed results.


About a decade ago my printer's rep died and what his colleagues most remembered with laughter was his tendency to forget to turn off his cell phone before a meeting. That was when cellular phones were new.

As I near the completion of the second edition of a family history on which I have been laboring almost all my life, it occurred to me that I didn't scan in pictures at the optimum resolution. Thank goodness I kept the photos rather than discarding them. Some grandchild will have to scan them more accurately in using the precursor of 22nd century technology.

For myself, I'm done as soon as the editing, writing and layout is finished. There are a number of projects that I now begin to realize I am unlikely ever to complete to my satisfaction.

Similarly, there are a number of achievements I will never attain. I won't grow up to be President of the United States nor managing editor of The New York Times.

So? Can't I simply laugh it off and forget these silly yearnings? Kundera wrote with a similar irony of the air-brushing-out in official photos of politicians purged from the Czech Communist Party.

Granted, in Soviet forced forgetting there was a tacit and symbolic death brought about that Kundera understandably rebelled against. Death by murder always feels like a violation.

Yet doesn't nature murder us all? Don't I face an explicit and actual death?

Oddly enough, I become less rebellious against my murder by nature's hand with every day that passes. I am getting old enough to laugh at it, to gain an indifference to whether it occurs  next week or 30 years from now.

It is almost as if life has excised a bad tooth and given me laughing gas to avoid the pain.

Having lived in a dictatorship with relative everyday ease, I wonder now whether living in a totalitarian regime was all that different from the dictatorship of nature: laughter and forgetting to ease whatever ails us, instead of the futile struggle to remember.

Soviets were paying rent at 1920s rates in the 1990s. Sure, the ruble wasn't a freely convertible currency, but I doubt it made a difference for the majority of Russians. Would it have changed things that much in America?

As one who lives and breathes politics, it might be difficult to forgo certain kind of arguments in cafes or on the Internet, but in the end, have I ever really solved any social problem with my discussions?

Most people want a few simple things. A full belly, some affection or facsimile thereof, clothes appropriate to the season, a decent place to live, something to keep us occupied. Oh, and something to complain about.

Was there a richer, more compassionate humor anywhere outside of Soviet Russia in our lifetime? Remember "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us"? I doubt there was anything like it amid the stationwagons and color TV sets of Levittown.

Sure, I could to without the wanton murder of some 30 million people under Stalin. But even people who lived through the Red Terror are wistful about it today.

In the end, it is all laughter and forgetting.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Agnostic Via Media

Anglicans like to call their faith a via media, or middle way, between Rome and Wittenberg. Much the same is the place of the agnostic, I have found.

I am not talking of those who are religionless by default but fearful of the cosmic spanking they might get in the afterlife. Those who call themselves "agnostic" to avoid the stares and frowns prompted by "atheist."

No, I am talking as someone who once believed with conviction. Not just in childhood, either. Not just as a matter of good manners or custom. Not as a cultural expression (well, perhaps a little).

I had faith and now all I have is doubt I cannot overcome. I offer this mindful of Romano Guardini's definition of faith as the capacity to overcome doubt.

The terrible thing is that I am reasonably well educated about religion. I am conversant with the salient issues in theology, biblical research and ecclesiology and the gallons of ink spilled attempting to resolve them.

Indeed, I enjoy a good discussion on these themes. I can articulate with very reasonable fidelity the prevailing consensus concerning the basic teachings of Christianity, the Catholic Church and some branches of Protestantism -- even though I do not believe in any of it.

To my mind, the question isn't even whether God exists, but whether Jesus of Nazareth ever really walked the face of the earth, which I highly doubt.

There ought to be a church in which people who do not believe can go and discuss these things. I'm not interested in socials, bake sales, services or the like. Just a good discussion in which I can speak with like minded people and broaden my understanding with the comforting knowledge that none of these questions can ever be definitively answered.

Give me the church of St. John Dominic Crossan, please.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Good Are the Churches?

Two issues, two days, two wrongheaded political interventions by churches: Mormons fund a proposal to ban gay marriage, Catholic bishops begin murmuring about opposing Obama on their micro-issues. Maybe it's time to take away the tax exemptions of churches, see if they have time to screw around with the rest of us then.

Note that they're never out in front for peace or for poverty reduction. Only exceptionally, and usually for the self-interest of their congregations, do they come out in favor of ethnic tolerance.

I won't even bother with whether their beliefs make sense. Let's look at their actions, which principally amount to wanting to carve into the stone of the civil, religiously neutral law of a pluralistic society minor quirks of their moral codes.

Let's start with the Mormons. The Church of Latter-Day Sainst opposes gay marriage; fine, no judge will force a church to perform a marriage that violates the churches teachings.

Certainly, no Catholic priest is legally obligated to marry a divorced Catholic who does not have an canon law annulment: Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of the bond created by the sacrament of matrimony trumps secular law under the U.S. Constitution.

On the issue of marriage, Mormons have their own unusual history.

In 1890, then-LDS President Wilford Woodruff claimed he received a revelation that polygamy, previously taught as consistent with "God's law," should be banned. The oracular event was instrumental in Utah's admission into the USA in 1896. Yet even then the first Mormon elected to the House in 1898 was denied a seat because he practiced polygamy.

Should the Mormons be allowed polygamy? Why not? The Catholics are allowed not to recognize divorce decrees that are perfectly legal in civil courts.

But it doesn't end there. The Mormons also banned blacks from the priesthood or their temples in 1849, a doctrine that was not altered until 1978. Note that government did not interfere in the application of this doctrine.

Much the same can be said of Catholicism, which as a matter of practice in the United States upheld separate seating, and in some places separate churches, for blacks and whites. The practice was still known to occur in 1949, I am aware, when Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle banned it in his diocese and swiftly unseated several pastors who defied him.

But, you might say that the Catholic Church gives plenty to the poor through Catholic Charities, no? Actually, no. Between 45 and 65 percent (depending on the source) of Catholic Charities' funding comes from contracts with the government.

Catholic Charities heyday as a private beneficence was when its charges were white and Irish. Once the Irish moved to the suburbs and clients began to be primarily black or Hispanic, the organization needed government money to continue.

Now comes Archbishop Francis George of Chicago, arguing that bishops should express opposition to the rumored regulatory changes that the Obama administration will make in the areas of abortion counseling and stem-cell research.

Why haven't the bishops been as vocal on other issues as they have on this? Isn't it a fact that the bishops want a law on abortion because their preaching has failed so abysmally that Catholics are statistically as likely to divorce or get an abortion as non-Catholics?

Why should we taxpayers subsidize this nonsense? The LDS and Catholic churches have plenty of money -- witness the millions paid out in damages in response to lawsuits from pedophile priests' victims.

Traditional religion is, indeed, the only wholly untaxed business in the USA. Whatever social purpose they may have been deemed to perform in the past, that role is long gone. In a country that prides itself on the separation of church and state, religion should be taxed, like pornography, cigarettes and liquor.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Hem of His Garment

Just as walking the streets of Washington besieged by beggars I occasionally wonder if this is what it might feel like to be God (imagine 6 billion supplicants), reading the post-election punditry makes me think of President-elect Obama in the role of Jesus followed by a mob seeking miracles every which way.
And they besought him that they might touch but the hem of his garment. And as many as touched, were made whole. (Matthew 14:36).
The pundits and politicians from the right are insisting that this is a "center-right" country and that the economy, meaning the plutocrats, not the uninsured, unemployed, or those simply struggling, comes first. Not to be outdone, the liberal-left insists that the 8-million-vote margin is a mandate and that President-elect Obama should beware of the Clintonite wolves in sheep's clothing who gave us NAFTA, no health care reform and the Gringrich version of welfare.

So, the magic of the Obama victory is already fading as the urgency of the problems ahead make themselves felt. We are now all supplicants with a yen to be healed.

Heal us, Obama, from the calamity of being the only leading industrial nation that fails to aid individuals in need -- those who are sick, unemployed, disabled, young, or in old age; give us a womb-to-tomb system of social insurance.

Heal us, Obama, from the scourge of war that has blighted nearly every American generation; make us a nation of peace.

Heal us, Obama, from the arrogance of thinking that we are "Number One" by right rather than happenstance; instill in us the humility necessary to accept the global responsibilities bestowed on us by fate.

Heal us, Obama, from our smugness and false pride, from thinking that our ethnicity or sex or particular manners or beliefs are the best; help us become tolerant of one another and of all others.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

To Be President One Day

The festivities in the streets on Tuesday and yesterday's elation in what I'll call "Smiling Wednesday" call to mind my feelings in November 1960, as a Catholic schoolboy, when the country elected a Catholic and my coreligionists instantly ceased being second-class citizens.

 * photo origin unknown; will credit or take down if requested

Although the "No Irish Need Apply" signs are part of myth rather than history, this country was distinctly Protestant and anti-Catholic for most of its history. Bigotry against Catholics is still socially acceptable 48 years after the 1960 election.

Evidence of past prejudice is amply in evidence in the city I live, Washington, D.C., on 16th Street, the boulevard that starts from smack in the middle of the White House. The street is also known as "the street of churches." However, when the Shrine of the Sacred Heart was built in the 1920s, it had to be placed on a spur off 16th Street because neighboring Protestant leaders found a Catholic church fronting on 16th offensive.

It is evident in the things even "cool" Protestant ministers today feel entitled to say.

I am no longer a practicing Catholic for philosophical reasons, but I still bristle at the abiding prejudice that John F. Kennedy helped, if not erase, at least mitigate. This broke the spell cast on Alfred E. Smith, the Irish Catholic four-times-elected governor of New York, only to lose to Herbert Hoover in 1928 due to what a contemporary journalist described as "the three P's: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity."

A Catholic could grow up to be president starting in 1960, just as an African American can grow up to be president starting now.

It's a wonderful feeling when something that characterizes you or your family, something not easily changed, something incidental to character, no longer stands as a bar to your dreams.

This week that happened again.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President-elect Obama

What a fine ring those words have! Otherwise, I am speechless, basking in the moment's glow.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Why I am voting for Obama

Time to make the last ditch push with anyone who is still undecided. This is probably the most important election of my lifetime, which spans a bit more than half a century. It's time to decide.

Why Obama?
I originally came to Obama by process of elimination among the Democratic candidates.

The Clinton coterie bothered me. Biden didn't strike me as quite right. I liked the insouciance of Dennis Kucinich (and, yes, his wife), but i didn't thnk he had a snowball's chance in hell.

Then, I found myself watching Obama speak shortly after winning South Carolina and I knew I was in the presence of someone Kennedyesque for the first time since the Boston-accented, first and only Catholic president, whose inauguration I had lived to witness. Whatever might be said about Kennedy today, after we know more than we ever wanted about the darker side of Camelot, his gift was an oratory that mobilized and first set me dreaming.

Obama had that.

Then I began to examine his positions and what his aides said and I came to the conclusion that this was a man who acted with deliberation. There was nothing improvised about him.

When gas prices went up and McCain and Hillary Clinton launched their demagogic call for a gas tax holiday, Obama said the sober "no." He was right. Gas prices woke the country up.

When he had to choose a running mate, Obama displayed the wisdom and humility to choose someone who had criticized him sharply, but was, without question, experienced in policy and statesmanship.

When the bottom fell out of the economy, Obama laid out four crisp principles and they are embodied in the legislation authorizing the $700 billion bailout of the finance sector.

That's three for three.

Hillary's health plan was more generous and innovative, but it probably would never pass. Biden wanted to withdraw too quickly from Iraq (although his trial balloon on partition -- which worked for Yugoslavia, a country similarly artificial and divided -- was very good).

Yet every policy proposal of Obama's that I have heard -- and I have listened to his economic advisers at length -- has a crispness, sobriety and focus on the majority that is sound and actionable. When he says we can recover, I trust that he will use the proper tools to get there.

In sum, I have confidence that Obama will be not just a president I can agree with, but one who will be great and may convince me to change my views in a number of areas. That's a leader.

Why not McCain?

It's perhaps a sign of how far to the right the United States shifted since 1981 that John McCain was even a viable candidate. Yet, like his fellow Arizonian Barry Goldwater, I long knew McCain to be an extremist.

Here is a man so besotted with private enterprise as to disdain the environmental and urban traffic benefits of Amtrak, which he has repeatedly attempted simply to abolish.

Why not privatize rivers and mountains? (Oops, in a reality-trumps-satire turn of events, they've just announced from the Bush White House that they're considering opening federal lands in Utah for mining.)

McCain is not merely conservative; he's almost to the right of the libertarians. Study his record and you will discover a man who saw Ronald Reagan as failing to damage government enough and George W. Bush as a patsy.

While I think Obama might be a tad too critical of some programs I like, and Hillary's people too uninformed about them, given a free hand McCain would simply abolish every domestic program that was not connected to law enforcement and security, starting with social security.

Imagine what would have happened to the retirement of millions this year if policymakers had listened to McCain and social security had been turned into privately held stock market investment accounts!

McCain is simply unthinkable for anyone who is honest about electing the head of state of a 21st century, complex society such as the United States.