Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Divining Obama

Last night I had a fretful episode. The press have been bandying Reverend Wright's recent cluster of public appearances in a not particularly favorable light for Obama. They have hardly even mentioned the lucid interview on Friday night with Bill Moyers. Becoming nervous, I decided to do a Thesaurus reading about Obama, asking for insight as to just where things are for him. A reading like this involves, first of all, the framing of a question, and second, opening the book and randomly pointing a finger at what is then the answer. Sometimes it works phenomenally well, sometimes not. Yesterday it worked to devastating effect.

The words I got were anything but reassuring, auspicious, or even meaningless. Instead they seemed somehow prophetic. The answer arrived under entry 757: Prohibition:

"Obliteration, forbidden fruit, contraband article; prohibit, forbid, disallow, veto; give thumbs down, refuse, withdraw permission, cancel leave, revoke, restrain, taboo, outlaw; black, declare black, place out of bounds, shut the door on, blackball, ostracize, excommunicate, frown on, not countenance, disapprove, crack down on; clip, pinch, cramp, dash the cup from one's lips."

In that moment my worst fears were realized. Somebody please tell me this is NOT what's happening.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Falling in Love with Reverend Wright

Friday night is my favorite night for watching television. I am an afficionado of both "Washington Week" and the "McLaughlin Group" on PBS, always ready with lively commentary on the week's news; and then at 9 pm, there is Bill Moyers' Journal. This past Friday, I made myself stay awake to watch at least a few snippets of Moyers, who was interviewing Obama's infamous pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I wasn't particularly looking forward to it, but duty called, and I admit to having had a certain curiosity. A few minutes, I thought, just enough to get the drift. All the earlier commentators had been saying it was a bad move to put the pastor on; timing was wrong, and it would work against Obama by keeping the story alive.

Believe me when I say I was totally unprepared for what happened: I found myself falling in love with
Jeremiah Wright. I understood completely why he became Obama's "mentor." I could easily have him as mine. I hung upon his every word. (I know, I know! It wasn't all that long ago I fell in love with Adirondack chairs.)

Wright has many of the same enviable qualities as Obama, only more so. He is brilliant, articulate, with that same concentration of focus that allows him to synthesize many divergent realms into a single, integrated, big picture. His dialectic of engagement, like Obama's, is fed by many sources, all leading to a world view of unity and equality. He is, for instance, very opposed to revenge killing. He is also very opposed to America's foreign policy, and is quick to point out its long history of terrorist activities, one behind the other, starting with the decimation of the Native Americans. Moyers showed lengthy sections from several of Wright's sermons, which put into context the kind of fiery comments that have been used as a snare against Obama by the "politicians of destruction." Once again I was embarrassed and ashamed at how a brilliant and good man has been abused and used as a political pawn. Wright himself is unflappable, good-humored, and obviously unfazed, although he did express distress over the personal death threats that both he and his church have received--ever since he was publicly branded a traitor and a demagogue. Listening in more depth to what he said, however, there was not one single word I disagreed with.

Despite his opposition to U.S. foreign policy, just for the record, Wright gave up his student deferment in 1961 to join the Marines and go to Vietnam. He was also a member of Lyndon Johnson's medical team and attended him during his 1966 surgery. The great patriots, GWB and Dick Cheney, by contrast, have refused to serve over many years in any war, or risk their lives to defend this country. But they are quick to have their hackles raised and spew vitriol about patriotism whenever any criticism of their foreign policy is expressed. "There is nothing more annoying in the habits of life [in America] than this irritable patriotism of the Americans," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville after touring here in the 1830s.

As Michael Scheuer points out in his latest book, "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq," any efforts to educate the American public about how the enemy thinks and the real nature of the Islamic threat has not turned out to be as easy a task as he thought. Consensus opinion must not be reproached--the least prickly truth alarms it. And Scheuer should know. A former CIA veteran who served during the 1990s as Chief of the bin Laden unit, he has been pilloried every bit as badly as the Reverend Wright for viewing the war through the enemy's eyes--even though he does this not out of sympathy, but because he is convinced that bin Laden's own statements are the best source for knowing what al-Qaeda is really up to. The problem with Scheuer's assessments, however, is that the war aims as established by bin Laden are already very far advanced: "Bleed America to bankruptcy" and "Spread out American forces." But political correctness forbids these realities to play any part in the public discourse.

Even worse, Scheuer claims that, however much more we fight, we will still have to leave Iraq in defeat. Stating what seems, at least to me, to be the obvious, and also because of his belief that U.S. efforts to defeat al-Qaeda have been much less than adequate to do the job, he has been branded a "Bush-basher" and a "liberal appeaser" by the Republicans, and a "warmonger unfitted for high position within the CIA" by the Democrats. Scheuer is not the most popular of former CIA agents because he often adopts an "Osama voice" format in his writing that purports to be bin Laden himself speaking. This voice is often delighted at the failing public support for the war and the half-measures so far adopted by the administration:

"The American leaders appear to believe that we are afraid of and intimidated by their military power, may God help them to cultivate this illusion....Brothers, believe me, the Americans' leaders are either soundly asleep, unwilling to face reality, or fundamentally stupid. Based on my experiences, observations, discussions, and studies, U.S. leaders do not have a clue as to what their war with us is about."

Infuriating comments maybe, but ones that are sadly and drastically true.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An Ominous Tap on the Shoulder

On the first day Peace Pilgrim started her walk for peace (see my previous blog "Wardrobe Watch"), she joined up with a parade going on in Pasadena, California, and began handing out printed flyers and talking to people. At one point a police officer put a hand on her shoulder. She assumed it was to admonish her and chase her off. Instead he said, "What we need is thousands like you."

I was especially amused by this story, because of being reminded by it that something like this had happened to me many years ago--albeit in very different circumstances.

I made a serious stab once at being a thief. It was when I was in my early twenties, and what I stole was an amazing, shocking-pink velvet bathing suit from Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Two things prompted me to engage in this Borgesian perfect crime and make my own modest but indelible mark on thieving history.

I was reading, at the time, an underground book called "The Thief's Journal" by Jean Genet, a denizen both of French jails and exalted literary circles. Besotted with Genet's thieving bravura, to this day I can recall one of the most striking statements he made to his biographer, Jean-Paul Sartre: "They called me a thief, and so I became a thief." Genet somehow managed to frame stealing as a profound philosophical act, a reasonable option.

All of this was happening around the same time that I was invited by my then friends Lawrence Alloway, the English art critic and his wife, the painter Sylvia Alloway, to spend a weekend at their beach house in East Hampton. Off I went to Saks with another friend to purchase a new bathing suit. The luscious pink velvet one I found was so consummately gorgeous, I gasped, knowing absolutely that I had to have it. Nothing else would do. But that suit, needless to say, was priced way beyond my paltry budget at the time. In a strained moment of perfect ease, I decided to attempt my one and only ever "literary" crime, putting Jean Genet's thieving philosophy to the test.

My friend was aghast. "What if you get caught?" she asked. "It's not worth the risk." But I was undaunted, powerless to manage the desire that had overtaken me. Besides, from my reading, I knew the risk was itself the magic.

I happened to have with me a black attache case, into which I slipped the bathing suit. (This was way before department stores had surveillance cameras.) I told my friend we needed to leave the dressing room separately, and that I would meet her outside on the street. That way if anything bad did happen, she would not be implicated in any way. I also knew that once I was outside the door of the store, I could no longer be accosted. So I held my breath all the way down the elevator and only let it out when I got outside the door and reconnected with my friend. A feeling of exhilaration came over me, as we slowly began making our way back up Fifth Avenue, lost in the crowd. It was after we'd gone about a block and a half when I suddenly felt that ominous hand on my shoulder from behind.

"Oh God!" I thought. "I'm done for!." I turned around to face the music, and a man said, "Do you happen to know what time it is?" Impossible to miss the synchronicity here. And just for the record, Sylvia Alloway painted my portrait wearing that shocking pink bathing suit.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wardrobe Watch

Wow! I just read a blog response about Hillary that pretty much sums up everything I've been thinking: "What people fail to realize is, it doesn't matter what McCain and the Republicans intend to throw at Obama, Clinton betrayed the Democratic party and all it stands for. Nobody crosses that line. Nobody. The sore-loser kitchen-sink tactics that are 'toughening him up' are not for a fellow democrat, who has no chance of winning, to do! She is a traitor. A horrible team player who cannot be trusted. Hillary has proven time and time again, that she is disloyal to the party and people who made her first lady and a senator...."

It's definitely shown up as a problem, this thing about her character. There is an invisible line that has been fatally crossed--it lies somewhere between a decently willed intention never to give up and the ruthless desire to win at any cost. As far as I am concerned (and not to belabor the point, since I've already written about this several times), Hillary crossed that line several weeks ago. However, this is not what I want to talk about now.

Every time Virgil sees Hillary on TV, he punches the air and stomps. So I've been wondering what this is all about. He claims it has nothing to do with politics, or even bad behavior. "It's about her outfits," he explains. "She never wears the same clothes twice."

I've been wondering about that as well. How does Hillary maintain her turbo-charged wardrobe, managing to look like a longed-for Christmas present every single day, when she is permanently on the road without even a closet to call her own?

I think I was prompted to think about this because I am reading a book called "Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words," and the contrast between Peace Pilgrim and Hillary, most especially in the matter of their respective wardrobes, is so striking. In case you don't know who Peace Pilgrim is, she was a woman who walked "25,000 Miles on Foot for Peace," as described by the logo on the back of her tee shirt. After that, she stopped counting the miles, but kept on walking. From her initial pilgrimage in 1953 until 1981 when she was tragically killed in a car crash, Peace Pilgrim never gave up on her eternal quest for peace. "I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace," she stated, "walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food."

She carried no money, kept no home, bore no other name. Peace Pilgrim owned only the clothes on her back--a pair of navy blue slacks, a navy tee shirt, and a tunic with special pockets sewn all around its hem in which she carried all her worldly possessions, which consisted of a comb, a folding toothbrush, a ball point pen, copies of her message, and her correspondence. She considered her walking not just a prayer for peace, but also a form of penance for "whatever I may have contributed by commission or omission to the tragic situation in the world today." Half a century ago, she desperately hoped that our war-weary world would somehow find the way to peace before a holocaust descends, and for this prayer, she gave up all claims to a name, personal history, and possessions. I can't help feeling that if she were still alive today, she would be running, not walking.

In light of Hillary's excesses, it's the wardrobe that somehow says it all--at least for me. For Peace Pilgrim, one outfit of clothing was enough. "I am not a slave to comfort and convenience," she said."I wouldn't be a pilgrim if I were." She washed her simple garments wherever she could, whether in a public restroom or a country stream, and dried them by wearing them on her body and letting the sun evaporate the water. Maintaining that she could adjust to any changes in temperature, she wore the same clothes in both summer and winter, indoors and out. Once a reporter asked if she carried a folding umbrella and she replied: "I won't melt. My skin is waterproof. I don't worry about little discomforts."

I have no idea where, or even when, Hillary shops. I don't know who does her hair every day. But I do know she always looks amazingly good, perfectly stitched, impeccably groomed. That said, it is Peace Pilgrim's remarkable blue slacks and straggly white hair that inspires me, and breaks my heart. Such is the symbolic and overwhelmingly pertinent triumph of the wardrobe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

My Day at the Beach

It took two rather long days of riding in the car to get there and back, but when we finally arrived in Atlantic Beach on Emerald Isle, my first glimpse of those uninterrupted miles of sea, pristine beach, and fleecy clouds, all framed in late afternoon sunlight as I stood on the balcony of my Windjammer Hotel room, was even better than having a vision. It was real! Breathtakingly gorgeous! And a picture-postcard-perfect reflection of exactly what had been in my mind's eye: the roiling, majestic ocean, which I so desperately wanted to revisit after going so long without seeing it , never knowing if I would again.

It was, of course, way too cold and windy to get in, but it was such a treat to immerse myself in the rhythmic lapping of waves and watch as small groups of gulls wheeled and circled synchronously in the air above the water. Getting me to the beach again was the miracle work of my stalwart pals Hank and John, who live in Boone. John, it turns out, has been visiting this particular beach town since he was in high school. One must-do thing on our list, I soon learned, was to have lunch in the drive-in hamburger place called El's, where he used to take his high-school sweetheart way back when. You sit outside in the parking lot and waitresses come to your car and take your order. Then they bring out the most delicious-ever El-burger laced with everything a girl could want, and you sit in your car and gobble it up, asap. Egrets wait nearby, stalking the ground for hand-outs and remnants. When John finished his burger, he jumped out of the car and tossed one bird a left-over French fry. Suddenly, in a matter of seconds, what had been the odd creature or two patiently loitering in the parking lot became a Hitchcockian swarm, headed straight in his direction. John quickly dived back into the car barely escaping the onslaught.

On the way there, we stopped at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh for lunch in the Blue Ridge atrium restaurant. Afterwards we briefly cruised the collections. John has a favorite Botticelli he wanted to see. I confess I was more excited by the rows of painted Adirondack chairs when we got to the beach, for sale everywhere, in radiant colors of flamingo pink, turquoise blue, carrot orange, and emerald green. I was dying to haul several home to cheer up my back deck, but there was no way to do it.

First thing in the morning on Saturday, we visited the new state aquarium, and wandered happily along the boardwalks outside where you could sit down in little inlets to observe the beauty and peacefulness of the marsh. We were lucky because we were early; no one else was around. Back inside the aquarium, we tentatively touched the sting rays swimming in an open tank, and watched the divers who ceremoniously entered a huge water-filled enclosure the length of a long wall, to hang out with the sharks. These being modern and techno-interactive times, one of the divers was rigged out with a sound system and mike, in addition to his wet suit and breathing mask, so he could take questions and talk with the audience. The children loved it. All the fish we saw came from waterways local to North Carolina. There were even the two distant cousins to Virgil, a pair of small brown alligators with black spots who, I swear, smiled when they saw me.

Our last night, Saturday, we ate in an irresistibly eccentric, small restaurant overlooking the sea. I had fresh Little Neck clams which I haven't tasted in years and a lime mohito. Then we went to an abomination of a movie, just out, called "Fool's Gold." (Whatever you do, give this one a pass.) And I did get a temporary reprieve from war and dirty politics. I also got, on the way back, some pink Himalayan salt at the Raleigh Sunday morning flea market, from the Jurassic Era, and some chunky whole crystals in a jar, to which you add water and then take a teaspoon of the salty solution every morning. It's supposed to help all kinds of chronic conditions: from arthritis to sinusitis and high blood pressure. We'll see if it works or not!

Now I'm back at my post here in Blacksburg, left to my own devices. I'm battling with a new HD digital TV that won't transmit my soap operas on CBS, despite a carefully installed roof aerial. Is that a sign I'm meant to stop watching them? I hope not. All my pens seem to have run out of ink. Next week I have to get a new water softener to replace the archaic system in the basement. Meanwhile, my dearly beloved housemate of 14 years, Hersha, has finally moved out and into her new house in Christiansburg. She's gone, and I'm feeling sticklike and a little gray and still wishing like hell I had those Adirondack chairs.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

"Of the Empire"

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

--Poem by Mary Oliver

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Iraq: The Argument for Getting Out

Lately, I've found myself profoundly wishing that Barack Obama would deliver another speech, similar to the one he made a few weeks ago on race relations, but this time it would be about the Iraq War. Not a policy stump speech along the lines of "this is what I would do as President," but instead, something that uses his incomparable synthesizing skills to break out of the polarizing frame we are currently stuck with. The frame which continues (ad infinitum, ad nauseum) to define our only options there as a choice between "staying the course" until we "win," or "cutting and running," which signals giving up, surrendering, and thus "losing," to the enemy--a strategy that, in the words of John McCain, would be "an unconscionable act of betrayal."

If you happen to believe (as I do, and pretty much everyone else I know does) that our very presence in Iraq is itself the "unconscionable act;" if you believe that we need to leave in order for the violence generated by our presence to stop; then how to reconcile this with the seemingly legitimate claims that a U.S. withdrawal would plunge Iraq into chaos, civil war, perhaps even genocide, and provide a victory for al-Qaeda? Where is the non-polarized path between this Scylla and Charybdis that has yet to be charted? It strikes me that only Obama is capable of presenting a non-manipulative, non-agenda-driven overview to the public of what is really at stake here. Only Obama can launch the real debate our country needs to embark on. Instead of this, we are lost in the crosshairs of haggling over the role of superdelegates, party in-fighting, and whether that sniper fire in Bosnia ever happened to Hillary.

In the absence of an Obama-crafted overview of the war, I can strongly recommend a new book called "Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq." The author, Jonathan Steele, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, offers cogent answers to such questions as: Why did the occupation fail? Could it have "worked" or was it bound to be a disaster? Why did resistance develop? Who bears the blame for the carnage, initially between the occupiers and insurgents, and later among Iraqi's themselves?

One way Steele's book radically changes the usual dichotomous frame is that he starts from a different premise: not only is the Iraq war lost, but it could never have been won in the first place. Before they ever began their unfortunate, illegal, and unnecessary invasion, Bush and Blair were both presented with what adverse consequences there might be to such an undertaking, but they chose to ignore them. Can what was a mistake from the start ever be corrected by a prolonged continuation of the same mistake? There is a refusal even now to acknowledge that anti-Western Islamism has grown stronger in Iraq (and elsewhere) because of the occupation. Iraqis do not trust America's intentions. Their fear has always been that Washington wants to take control of their country and its oil, and that US troops will not leave. Lord only knows how they ever got that idea!

Steele argues that Iraqi suspicion of US intentions and their resentment at not having the right to be in charge of their own country has created a resistance which cannot be ended without ending the occupation itself. Keeping troops in Iraq is the problem, not the solution. The longer they remain, the more the insurgency grows.

Because there is no plan for a troop pull-out, Steele is convinced that this is the cancer that has undermined the occupation from the start. It aroused Iraqi suspicions, ignited nationalist anger, and produced the insurgency. Most of all, it has turned Iraq into a magnet for jihadis all over the Muslim world. The assumption now is that the US intervened for its own purposes, and not to liberate the population.

Unless the US states clearly it does not want permanent military bases and proposes a date for withdrawal of US forces (don't count on George Bush or John McCain to do any of that), we will face an ever-widening resistance that we will not be able to defeat militarily. The real failure, according to Steele, is the lack of awareness that Western armies cannot successfully take over Arab countries and force them to run along Western lines. Resistance--the defense of Iraq--is a Muslim obligation, on a par with fasting and prayer. Those who defend the occupation, however, do not distinguish between resistance and terrorism. Bush's central blunder in Iraq has been the failure to announce an early time table for leaving. Now that running the country has proved to be much more difficult than was expected, the issue has turned into a macho exercise of "staying the course" no matter what.

So, if by some miracle Barack Obama, without my knowing, were somehow to look over my shoulder here, I would ask him to balance out the opposites for us in this messy terminal situation, with that unique purity of vision he alone possesses, entering the discussion with his whole being as a moral act. Until then, my friend Cliff McReynolds has sent me a poem he wrote, called "Give War a Chance," so I'll end instead with two stanzas from the central section of his poem.

"And oh, Mr. President
Just because war has created hatreds that never die
And led to more war for 5000 years
Some have lost their faith in it.
But thank god you live in the real world
Rely on common sense and logic:
Better that our soldiers accidently disembowel
Other people's wives and kids
Hiding in closets or beneath their beds
Than pay too much for gasoline

The well-meaning say: people just don't like it when you invade their country
See their homes destroyed, their children on fire
And trying to run without their feet
When blood and flesh get suddenly stuck to walls in market squares
These things bother them and inconvenience us
But this is the price we pay
OK, so we make a few hundred million enemies more,
But surely we can still eat out, obese and liposuck
My goodness--is that too much to ask?"

This, just in from Reuters:

Published on Thursday, April 3, 2008 by Reuters

Iraq’s Sadr Calls Million-Strong March Against US
by Peter Graff and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD - Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Thursday for 1 million Iraqis to march against U.S. “occupation” next week after his Mehdi Army militia battled U.S. and government troops.

The government said it would not attempt to block the march if it was peaceful although Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who ordered a crackdown on militia in the southern city of Basra last week, threatened more strikes against Sadr’s strongholds.

A statement released by Sadr’s office in the holy city of Najaf called on Iraqis of all sects to descend on the southern city, site of annual Shi’ite pilgrimages that attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers.

“The time has come to express your rejections and raise your voices loud against the unjust occupier and enemy of nations and humanity, and against the horrible massacres committed by the occupier against our honorable people,” it said.

The demonstration, called for the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on Wednesday, raises the prospect of unrest coinciding with a politically sensitive progress report to Congress by the top U.S. officials in Iraq.