Saturday, January 31, 2009

Political Wows!

I have to say that wherever you looked this week on the political front lines, there was a Wow! factor. Starting with the election of a BLACK man as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, who came out chanting about the need to broaden the party's geographic base and to do something completely different:

"We're going to bring, we're going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community, and we're going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us, and for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."

Well, maybe the last part isn't straight out of the Obama template, but obviously Republican slyboots have decided to learn from the ways of their prime adversary by importing his organizational skills and replicating his modes of thought.

Usually the coolest of the cool, Obama himself was seen publicly blasting as "shameless" the Wall Street CEOs who made off with $18 billion worth of bonuses at the end of last year, after their companies had received government bailouts. Obama called it "the height of irresponsibility." After which, my fav Republican (sometimes it's hard to choose), Rudy Giuliani, countered that big bonuses are good "economic stimulus," free-market style. That money gets taxed as income, he went on to explain, and gets taxed again when somebody buys something with it. "Welcome back, Rudy!" quips Virgil, who is standing nearby, wagging his alligator tail. "The mosquitoes were heinous at dusk, Rudy, so you best stand aside now, this is a man's job."

Meanwhile Sarah Palin will be attending a dinner tonight at the Alfalfa Club in DC, (Virgil has not been invited, much to his chagrin, since he really does love his alfalfa) mostly because Barack Obama will be there, too. Rather like the girls on "The Bachelor," she is hoping for some one-on-one time. But why, a blogger wanted to know, would she want to "pal around" with a terrorist?

Then there is the imminent reemergence of Samantha Power, the Harvard University professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author who worked for Obama during his campaign--until she insulted Hillary Clinton, calling her a "monster" who would stoop to anything to get elected, and was immediately dropped by the campaign. Power is soon to be named as a senior foreign policy aid to the White House. As it turns out, this will mean working closely with Secretary Clinton, to whom she has apologized, her voice vibrating on the plastic window screen and releasing rainwater from the squares.

And last but not least, no doubt inspired by the spontaneous paternosters and entreaties at tribal wakes, Obama has invited assorted members of Congress over to the White House to watch the Superbowl--hoping, I suppose, for a woodland renaissance.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bringing the Past Back to Life

A post-inaugural cartoon in my local paper showed Barack Obama entering his new office, where George Washington is pulling the desk chair back so he can sit. A recent cover of the New Yorker is a portrait of Washington, complete with white wig, but with Obama's brown face replacing Washington's. The day before the inauguration Obama retraced Abraham Lincoln's epic train ride of 150 years ago from Philadelphia to Washington, and the following day he was sworn into office on Lincoln's Bible.

At every junction Obama has proposed that the dream of our fathers is alive in our time--reiterating that the gift of freedom, justice, and equality for all on which this country was founded is the legacy we are carrying forward. His very presence on the world stage seems to reverse all the dark forces that in recent years have so badly sullied this legacy. With Obama as president, America gets to honor its republic again as a sacred treasure; we find ourselves rescued from the wicked hands of tricksters and mind monkeys who did not respect either truth or the public interest. Now, amazing as it is, we get to brush the dust from our white shoes. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times this weekend:

" I’ve seen charismatic politicians and pretty families come and go like sunrises and sunsets over the years. There was something more that was making people go ga-ga over Obama. Something deeper.

We’ve been watching that something this week, and it’s called leadership. Mr. Obama has been feeding the almost desperate hunger in this country for mature leadership, for someone who is not reckless and clownish, shortsighted and self-absorbed.

However you feel about his policies, and there are people grumbling on the right and on the left, Mr. Obama has signaled loudly and clearly that the era of irresponsible behavior in public office is over...This has been the Obama way, to set a responsible example and then to call on others to follow his mature lead."

After so many years of living in shame, in deceit, with our hearts and our country's reputation fallen on the ground and the people being unable to lift them up again, this new beginning feels like a miracle. What on earth happened? How did we get so lucky? Idly, as is often my wont, I decide to ask the Thesaurus for an answer to these questions. Opening and pointing at randon, once again it doesn't fail me:

"Win the jackpot, break the bank, make a killing; regain, redeem, recover one's losses; balance the books, receive a legacy, step into the shoes of, be the heir of; restoration, redemption."

"I believe that the energy fields of the founding fathers are back," states Caroline Myss, "and that America is on a respirator, as well as its vision." I've been listening to her audiobook, "The Sacred Contract of America," which I received as a Christmas present a few weeks ago. It was first released in September 2007, I should note, well before full-frontal Obamania was launched. Myss believes that nations (like individuals) have sacred contracts. Ours, scripted by the founding fathers into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is about rising to ever new levels freedom, equality, and self-governance. The birth of America's sacred contract emerged when the early settlers first came here and glimpsed a potential for freedom and self-governance not found in any other societies with a history of long rule by oppressive aristocracies; nor can such freedom be found in tribal nations who can't forgive the wounds that have become their history and their story. It is unique to Americans to have the freedom to revolt against the government if it doesn't represent them.

9/11, according to Myss, was our country's wounding, and immediately became our challenge and our choice--of how to step in to the global chaos: whether to transcend the right of vengeance and instead extend freedom and equality even to nations we don't like, or to violate our sacred contract. Myss claims that at this critical juncture, we lost our backbone and went into self-servingness. As Obama recently put it in his inaugural address, we threw our ideals overboard in the name of security.

This loss of our exemplary role--in Myss's words the defiling of our sacred contract as a country "saturated with light"--is surely what people mean, whether knowingly or not, when they say that "our country is on the wrong track." People know in their hearts that something is very wrong, even if they would not be able to articulate it in these terms.

So, as I began to hear what Myss was saying, I felt this ecstatic infusion of resonance: it was as if Obama were jumping off the CD and making her words manifest. Most likely he has never heard of Carolyn Myss or ever listened to these tapes, but the resemblance, at least to me, is nothing less than uncanny--not least because of the way Obama has caused the spirit of the founding fathers to reappear again in a new guise, as if they were indeed whispering in his ear.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

These Are My People

Every morning when I wake up, I turn on the news. Things in Gaza are not only getting worse for the Palestinians, they are making everything worse for every one, everywhere--including the Israelis. Whatever door you've walked through (according to Marianne Williamson), life won't be quite the same as it was before. There wasn't much chance for real reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians before the current siege of Gaza, but now, even that remote possibility has died along with all the Palestinian women and children who have been recklessly killed. Hamas today proclaimed the peace process is now behind them for good. Forever.

Israel continues to claim the higher moral ground based on its stated objective NOT to kill civilians. This intention is meant to pass for emotional sobriety on their part. Hamas, when it comes to killing civilians, doesn't give a shit, so the Israelis claim. It uses civilians as human shields. Meanwhile, in the past couple of weeks, over 800 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis, more than half of them civilians. The millions who are still left alive are hanging on by a thread, desperate for food, water, fuel, and medical assistance. So what is wrong with this picture? And what is the role of pure intentionality here?

My friend Fern and I have had many conversations on this topic. Intentions require the convergence of words and actions. We have always agreed that if you say one thing but then do another, you have to look at the actions, not the words, to evaluate what is really meant. When it comes to the subject of Israel, however, my friend's approach is no longer straightforward, because she happens to be Jewish. "I don't like what they're doing either," she says, referring to the Israelis, when I lamented their actions, "but I stand by my people."

It gets to me every time she talks like that. It's a statement, and a feeling, I simply can't relate to. I don't have any "my people." The whole idea makes me crazy. And then shortly afterwards, I found myself reading this comment by Hannah Arendt, quoted in the current New Yorker (Jan. 12):

When she was accused of lacking a love for the Jewish people, Arendt responded by saying, "I have never in my life 'loved' any people or collective....I indeed love 'only' my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons." Amen to that, I say.

Hannah Arendt is famous for pointing out that even a typical Nazi functionary did not regard himself as a murderer, because he did not do it out of inclination but in his professional, hired capacity. The same man would go home to his wife and children at night, and be a perfect husband and father. Arendt referred to this phenomenon as "the banality of evil."

Something to ponder in the present crisis--a further comment by Adam Rich, the author of the essay about Arendt in the current New Yorker: "As long as ordinary people can be transformed overnight into mass murderers, we are still living in Hannah Arendt's world."

Israelis take note. Very few people jump up and down to be with mass murderers. It's a setup for mistakes, a recipe for disaster. Not only that, it makes us lose our sparkle. Have we managed to forget how much Hannah Arendt's world sucks?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Damocles Strikes Again: Shock & Awe in Gaza

The promising advent of 2009 has been sorely marred, for me, by the latest cycle of destruction in Gaza. On NPR over the weekend, a Palestinian man being interviewed was asked if he and his family were doing okay so far? "No one in my family has been hurt," he answered, "but that is only physically. Everyone in the country is traumatized."

Obviously Hamas takes the blame for breaking the six-month ceasefire as soon as it ended on December 19th, by lobbing more rockets yet again over the border into Israel. What were they thinking? Presumably, it seems the Hamas leadership was hoping they could provoke Israel into lifting their blockade of vital supplies into Gaza. Instead, Israel is determined to persuade Hamas to stop their attacks. Neither will succeed, however, because both parties are intractable, and now both sides feel even more justified in their positions than before. The same story has played out many times already, using the same tactics and the same arguments, always with the same devastating results: Israel becomes an even bigger target in the Arab world, its citizens are less safe, and the Palestinians suffer unconscionably. "The U.S. and Israel have shared a fantasy," David Bromwich writes in the Huffington Post. "The fantasy says that the Arabs understand only force. It says we can end terrorism by killing all the terrorists." So far, everything points to the perception that we are indeed deluded if we really believe we can kill all the terrorists. Instead we have become supremely good at creating more of them.

At dinner last night in our local Indian restaurant, I asked the five friends I was with to tell me what they thought about this untenable situation. One person thought we would never sort it out unless we had full knowledge of the history of the region. "Not so," responded another. "These people need to come into the present. They are all living out the history of their past, and that is exactly what needs to stop."

My own thought is that it is time to bag the quadratic equations of denunciation, blame, counter-charge, endless recriminations, and self-serving righteousness, which don't work--and try something NEW, something that hasn't been tried before. The question is, what?

Virgil, by now drunk on all his Christmas chocolates and auditing, as he tends to do, all my conversations, came up later with one of his impossibly off-the-wall suggestions. "We need to take out the tanks--and replace them with the arrival of Lady Godiva. The sight of her naked body in the streets will surely stop these folks dead in their tracks. Lady Godiva can offer the same lesson of inestimable value she once presented to the peasants of Coventry (and while she's at it, she could also throw a wet blanket over all the baddies, despoilers, and disturbers of the peace)."

According to the popular story, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. She had appealed over and over to her husband to remit the tolls, but he obstinately refused to do so. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should keep within doors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair, and offering herself as a vision of such glorious beauty that she immediately provoked the betterment and appreciation of all those enlightened enough to appreciate such perfection.

Good old Virgil! and his grand-time surrealism--his is a mind always fertile with enigmatic juxtapositions. Replacing Attila the Hun with Lady Godiva has to succeed in shocking and aweing even the crudest of skeptics. I wish I had thought of it myself!