Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Everything to All!

Virgil and I, who are busy all week attending (or giving) holiday parties, send you our warmest greetings of the season and wishes for a prosperous and scintillating 2011. We will be back on track soon, hopefully with some new cultural and political lunge lines. Meanwhile, do not forget, Virgil advises, that "the present is a natural reservoir where tricksters learn to dive and swim the backstroke."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Stag Nation

American politics seems to have mutated into a game of playing shit-ball, with our unfortunate President as the ball. It doesn't really matter which team you are on, both sides are going for the jugular.

I was absolutely horrified last Sunday (Dec. 4th) when Frank Rich, arguably the New York Times' best liberal commentator, wrote a column implying that Obama was now a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. WTF? I thought. Republicans were threatening to boycott not just the President's entire legislative agenda, but to hold the whole government hostage, unless the Bush-era tax cuts were extended for the top 2 percent of richest Americans--something which Obama explicitly opposes. Despite this outrageous threat, Obama seemed all too willing to negotiate a deal. Stockholm Syndrome (as defined by the FBI) is when a hostage concentrates on his captors' "good side" and tries to please them. It's a term which describes capitulation to the enemy as a form of mental illness. Obama had not yet cut any deal with Republicans at that point, but Rich was already seeing the handwriting on the wall: the President was going to surrender "his once considerable abilities to act, decide, or think" and cave in to Republican blackmail.

So distraught was I at this below-the-belt ad hominem attack on the President by a writer I mostly admire, that I immediately copied out the piece and emailed it to a few friends, asking for their response. One wrote back, "OK, so Obama is Patty Hearst and the GOP is the Symbionese Liberation Army? Hell, I don't know what to think anymore." Soon afterwards came these reassuring insights from my friend Jane Vance. They made me want to bring out the champagne.

Jane stated unequivocally that for Rich to describe Obama's diplomatic demeanor and willingness to compromise as evidence of Stockholm Syndrome was just plain weird, and stupid. "Obama doesn't act like a hostage," she said. "His policies may be hostage, but his psychology isn't. He doesn't try to collaborate because he is fearful and submissive. That's not why healthy people cooperate and compromise. Since when did the wish or the ability to harmonize become so suspect as to be associated with trauma and disease?"

The minute I read this I thought: OK girlfriend, you just hit the ball right out of the park.

"Stockholm Syndrome," Jane went on, "means that a person is so degraded that he has to invent a perverse hope. Obama isn't degraded...[he] is still a kite, and with enough give he would fly. There is no flattening him...If he has any syndrome, it is optimism, which works better than stagnation. We are that beast now, the masculine complement to the Mama Grizzlies: the Stag Nation."

More like the stagnating nation, I thought, acutely concerned about how any president could possibly bust this particular roadblock: Republicans had clearly drawn their line in the sand, stating that nothing happens unless the rich get their tax cut.

Obama, being Obama, had drawn no such line and remained coolly open to negotiation, opening himself up thereby to yet more hateful rants from the Left on the Huffington Post and elsewhere. "Obama's style," Robert Kuttner wrote on HP, "is not to draw bright lines, but to blur them. He will never beat the stuffings out of the Republicans...[so] let's stop pretending. Barack Obama is a disaster as a crisis president...the more that he is pummeled, the more he bends over."

So much for playing shit-ball with the President, Mr. Kuttner. Can I just say, right here and now, how truly repugnant I find your comments? You claim the problem is Obama's ineffectuality--a "failure to know how to fight and lead as a progressive." But did Obama ever once, in two long years of campaigning, bill himself as "a leader of progressives?" On the contrary, he has ALWAYS calibrated himself as a "postpartisan leader," representative not just of one party (or one party's agenda), but of "all of the American people." That definitely includes you, Mr. Kuttner, but it also includes people who are not you.

When Republicans obstruct Obama implacably, when Democrats such as Kuttner villify him for "caving" to Republicans, condescendingly demanding that he "grow a spine," Obama continues to do what he always said he would do: govern the country as a whole, not just represent a single component of it. Indeed, the most stalwart and admirable thing about this president is how much he remains true to his original commitment to govern in a bipartisan manner, no matter how much he is beset about this on all sides. "It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right," Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times.

"I have not been able to budge them," Obama explained, after he had accomplished the impossible task of managing to cut a deal with the Republicans anyway.

"I realize It's tempting," he told everyone afterwards, in a not-so-veiled reference to Rich, "not to negotiate with hostage-takers," but then he flipped the whole argument around, redefining exactly who the hostages were: not him but the American people. "I could have picked a big fight," he said. But instead he chose to compromise, because the deal he got was the best one for the American people. "This country was founded on compromise," he somewhat caustically reminded everyone.

Democrats immediately reacted like hot-dogs sizzling and popping in the microwave. As expected and feared, their leader had predictably "caved." However, at least one Republican pundit (Charles Krauthammer) described Obama's deal as the "swindle of the year" for Republicans, because Obama had gotten so much of what he wanted--and managed to boost his re-election chances in 2012 to boot. Yesterday, on Meet the Press, Mayor Bloomberg sang Obama's praises and heartily approved his deal. "The country," he said, "needs this president to succeed. If he goes down, we all go down, so we need to pull together and get behind him." A voice of sanity in the wilderness. Someone who gets it, Mr. Kuttner. Maybe try listening to him?

"Look," says Virgil, who has suddenly loomed into view and is pointing in the direction of the White House. My alligator assistant is shirtless, his belly soft and pink, still wearing his old Dodger cap. He flips the cap around so I can better see what he's saying. "Nix on all the worry about Obama," he counsels. "The man is a blue aquarium light in the dark corridor where everyone else is stomping. He doesn't have Stockholm Syndrome. Not only is his spine more than ample, he's got a very fancy pair of antlers as well."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When Does Partisanship Morph into Treason?

It may be just an amateur's opinion, but treason is when Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia meets independently with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express his sympathies and allegiance to Israel, stating that he stands with Israel's leader against his own President--and that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the administration in defending the interests of Israel.

Treason is when Republican Senator Jon Kyle of Arizona risks the President's (and America's) international credibility by sabotaging passage of the START treaty, designed to reduce the proliferation of nuclear warheads and set up a mutual system of inspections, as a means of deliberately damaging Obama's "reset" of America's ties with Russia for crass political opportunism.

Treason is when Republican state governors band together to pass a "repeal amendment" that would allow a super-majority of state legislatures to overturn federal laws and sabotage the entire federal system of government. It's when the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Darrell Issa from California, declares his intention to hold one or two hearings a day--hopefully maybe even "seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks"--to investigate Democratic policies like the stimulus, the health care bill, and the bank bailouts.

Treason is when the co-chair of the President's fiscal commission on deficit reduction, Republican Alan Simpson, gleefully predicts that the new freshman class of congressional Republicans will do their best to shut down the government, if the national debt limit is not capped. (The debt limit now is at $14.3 trillion, and it will probably be reached in early 2011, so that if Congress doesn't pass legislation to raise it, the government will no longer be able to borrow money, whether or nor not the economy is in recovery.) Simpson has called those who would force the government into default "sharp cookies," claiming that closing down the government is exactly what they came here for.

Treason is a bunch of white Republicans in Congress who have decided it is politically smart to show disrespect for the first black American president, and who treat him, in Maureen Dowd's inimitable phrase, "like a dirt sandwich." This is a dishonor to the office of the presidency in full view of the whole world. By definition, if you Google it, treason is a crime that undermines the offender's government. It is disloyalty by virtue of inviting mutiny towards one's country or sovereign, or aiding its enemies by attempting to overthrow the government through subversive behavior.

"The fact is, Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times, "that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it's doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party's cooperation--cooperation that won't be forthcoming."

I think even Google would have to concur that what is happening in America today is more than just shameful and distressing. This isn't your garden-variety partisanship. By definition, it has to count as nothing less than treason.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Have a Wonderful Day, and God Bless!

I've been wondering what to write about today for this holiday weekend? Maybe how North Korea is doing a scary war dance on an island military base a few miles off of South Korea? Maybe about those dastardly Republicans who refused to find time to accept an invitation to the White House this week, thereby snubbing the President? They are the same guys threatening to undermine his nuclear START treaty with Russia, a big issue for me. Meanwhile, I'm off soon to Thanksgiving dinner with my longtime "holiday family," to which I am taking my favored stringbean dish, laced with yellow peppers, gouda cheese, fresh dill and tarragon, olives, and pine nuts--added to make the humdrum beans more alluring.

But then, what actually lit up my day today was getting a personal note from the President:

Suzi --

When Michelle and I sit down with our family to give thanks today, I want you to know that we'll be especially grateful for folks like you.

Everything we have been able to accomplish in the last two years was possible because you have been willing to work for it and organize for it.

And every time we face a setback, or when progress doesn't happen as quickly as we would like, we know that you'll be right there with us, ready to fight another day.

So I want to thank you -- for everything.

I also hope you'll join me in taking a moment to remember that the freedoms and security we enjoy as Americans are protected by the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces. These patriots are willing to lay down their lives in our defense, and each of us owes them and their families a debt of gratitude.

Have a wonderful day, and God bless.


Call me a cornball, if you must, but something about this brought tears to my eyes. I think it was the Suzi/Barack thing that hit a nerve. I just couldn't think of a single other national leader who might have written me like this. I was moved enough to send a reply:

"And right back at you, Barack. Enjoy the respite of the day. You've earned it. We are so lucky to have you in our midst! Hidden among the hate-mongers are many who love your sweetness and your willingness to struggle tirelessly under the most horrible conditions on our behalf. Thanks for your wishes. Suzi"

Recently I read that Cleopatra wrote her love letters on tablets of black onyx. Getting this note on my email today was a bit like getting a love letter from Cleopatra. Despite being a mass-mailing, it felt just so tender, heartfelt, intimate. And such a wonderful way of saying a very Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

As President Obama doubles down on civility and extends post-election olive branches to the GOP, leading Republicans have sent warnings to the administration to prepare for constant investigations and ideological stand-offs. A cartoon entitled "Reaching Out" in my local paper pictures Obama, with his long arm outstretched to shake hands, standing opposite an unpleasant, big, snarling dog, whose teeth are bared. The collar around the dog's neck bears the name of Mitch McConnell.
"Welcome to the Great American Cleaving," NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote this week--where talking across the table has been reduced to yelling across the chasm and where, instead of moving toward the middle, we are drifting toward the extremes. Republicans are not looking for compromise. The new Republican majority comes to power with a sour intention to make no deals and take no prisoners. They are not consensus-builders, Blow says. "That ripping sound you hear is the fabric of a nation."

Welcome to the world of once overlapping bipartisanship, transformed now into the sound of one hand clapping.

What is the sound of one hand clapping anyway? It's the most famous example of a Zen koan, i.e., a kind of paradoxical riddle that resists being solved by rational thought. When meditated on, koans are meant to help the mind transcend ordinary thought patterns and arrive at a more enlightened place. But can the mind, which is always bound by dualities, ever transcend the law of opposites? Definitely not these days, it seems. The American public is hardly in a meditative frame of mind. Instead, it is bloodthirsty. And the result, according to Hendrick Hertzberg,, "is a kind of political cognitive dissonance." For Obama and for the country, he claims, the next two years look awfully bleak. There will be no more transformative legislation.

A friend sends me a quote by Epictetus. "You can be happy if you know the secret: some things are within your power to control and some things are not." Obama may be unable to control the Republicans--who may, or may not, be able to control the Tea Party (we don't know the final story on that yet). But at the deepest level, he obviously has an inner conviction that the presidency carries with it certain responsibilities and obligations with respect to the office, one of them being the supreme importance of bipartisanship. It is, after all (and always has been), the very bedrock of American constitutional democracy. Bipartisanship is an institutional fact, meaning, there is good reason to respect those powers even if we don't feel like it--and to find, as Obama so eloquently puts it himself, "the sweet spot that works for both."

But what happens to the presidential ethos when one half of the government "goes rogue?" What happens when absolutely nobody wants to buy what your selling? When even your erstwhile supporters criticize you for continuing to dance long after the music has stopped? What happens when you intend to still keep these principles in mind, even while your critics accuse you of "endless placation?"

Obama's critics feel he is sounding more and more like a broken record, given that the time when Republicans would consider compromise with a Democratic president is long gone. What the White House seems to have forgotten, according to one commentator, Trey Ellis, on the Huffington Post, is that "we elected a commander-in-chief, not [a] mediator-in-chief. A mediator rarely offers his own opinions but steers both sides toward civility." Ellis goes on to offer the telling example of Obama's response to the new Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, when Boehner declared that the recently enacted health-care bill "will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world, and bankrupt the country." Obama's response was that "There are going to be examples where, I think, we can tweak and make improvements on the progress that we made." He meant to show his willingness to improve on the bill, but not to repeal it.

Really? Ellis is appalled. '"The president and I are both writers," he states. "He should know better. Does he really think he can battle active verbs like, 'kill,' "ruin,' and 'bankrupt' with, what, 'tweak'?"

"Therein lies the tragedy of Barack Obama," in the opinion of one of my favorite bloggers, Tom Degan. "He has tried to maintain the appearance of being 'above it all.' He has tried to be too much of an amiable gentleman--when he should have been fighting these plutocratic thugs with all the rhetorical thunder he could muster...The last thing in the world [Obama] wants to do at this stage in the game is to even think about 'working with' these reactionary assholes. As history tells us, that's impossible. He must realize this by now. Or does he?"

This is, indeed, the historic Zen koan of our day. "Mr. President," Degan further exhorts, "you cannot--you will not-- be able to 'meet them halfway.' Don't be an idiot. By now it should be obvious to you that they want to destroy you. And they will destroy you--if you allow them to."

"To fight or not to fight?" Obama must be asking himself the Hamlet question even as I write. This is a man who, when he ceremoniously took the political podium, dug in his heels as the very embodiment of a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state America. This is a man who believes, above all, in the value of finding common ground, points of agreement, and "overlap." When it doesn't work, as someone pointed out, he keeps on doing it. Meanwhile, a post-election CBS news poll determined that Americans are clamoring for compromise--more than 70% of those polled want Obama and congressional Republicans to make concessions and work together. Such is the nature of political koans at a time when many people would rather torment the president than actually accomplish the business of governing.

Last week, my friend Jane Vance sent me this detail (see above) of two overlapping goblets from one of her new paintings. It was just after I'd visited her, and she served me wine in the most extravagantly beautiful ruby-red glass I had ever seen. In truth, I couldn't get over how beautiful they were. Jane told me the glasses were a recent present from a friend. Then, on my email a few days later, this image arrived, and my first thought was, what a perfect metaphor for bipartisanship. I wrote her back, saying, "You'll just have to endure your glasses becoming politicized, because that's the lens through which I see everything these days."

Jane wrote back, "My goblets can handle politicization. The intoxication of proximity and the exhilaration of contact: these are the venerable political and personal arts we would do well, with our best goblets, to celebrate."

Ah yes, I thought, of course. If only it were, but it's so absolutely not, what is happening over there on Vinegar Hill.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Obliterating Arc of Hope and Optimism in Suicidal Times (2)

I am still very much in process with Desmond Tutu's assertion that "there is no question at all that good and laughter and justice will prevail," and that "the perpetrators of oppression or injustice will bite the dust"--trying to decide whether or not it is valid assumption to make. On the issue of how to remain optimistic when realistically everything is sliding towards collapse, hearing what my friends have to say has been both enlightening and rewarding. It's not that I don't know the reasons for optimism being the better path, I do. But I also struggle with the power of emotional truth, in terms of what I see happening wherever I look. For me, the struggle is between an optimism I mostly don't feel, and a pessimism I can't intellectually support. It's like riding a bus that is likely to leave its passengers lying dead by the side of the road, and hoping to figure out a way to be positive and philosophical about it.

"In truth, everybody’s is right and nobody knows anything. Derrick Jensen is right that we’re fucked, Tutu is right that goodness will prevail. You are right to worry. And I am right to see things in the context of very vast pictures. For instance, at this very second people are being tortured somewhere, and elsewhere people are having fantastic orgasms looking into each other's eyes...planets are being born and stars are blowing apart... some people have behaved in magnificent ways to one another, and at the same time...[others] have been cold, punitive, destructive to one another. Tears of sorrow and tears of joy flowing, flowing all of the time...This world, the big-picture world, is forever in states of flux of dark and light, forever turning itself inside out through both creation and destruction. Sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of the destruction: it’s in the nature of things. Why shouldn’t we? Who are we to escape that part of the universe forever? Every polarity we can think of love-hate, light-darkness, good-evil, miraculous-impossible, is always simultaneous in the whole. It’s all flickering and flowing and moving as one and we are part of that. It’s all congruent and necessary. Nobody really knows what’s what and that reality is our common ground—it crosses all lines. Here we are in the great mystery together, laugh or cry." [From my friend Jari Chevalier, who lives in New York. To read the entirety of Jari's response, visit Jari Chevalier, host: Living Hero podcast, NYC]

"I do think it’s important from a philosophical perspective to remain as compassionate as possible towards those with different beliefs or perspectives. I’ll take the two competing rallies that have occurred during this election cycle as proof. I think generally Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity had it right, and is pushing for a return to civility and open-minded discourse; I think generally Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor had it wrong, pushing for an awakening of the worst reactionary impulses in our citizenry. I certainly think that the leaders of these rallies can be categorized that easily: Stewart seems to me to be responsible and fair, whereas Beck does come across as a irrational fear monger... So while I think that a Jon Stewart or an Obama is mostly good and that a Glenn Beck or a John Boehner is mostly not good, I also think that there is a little bit more Jim Crow in some Democrats and, much more importantly, a little bit more Desmond Tutu in some Republicans than it might seem. I know from my time at Pepperdine that many people with archconservative positions on certain political issues and a very evangelical Christian perspective can be the nicest people in the world...I think that people have both Jim Crow and Desmond Tutu. Politics is an ugly business, and maybe not the best place to hope to see the better angels of our nature, though we do have people working hard in that arena to make that more the case. But I think that we see it best on a smaller scale, when organized greed and such doesn’t have the ability to put up a smokescreen. You and I can say that we prefer the Desmond Tutu part of humanity and work towards it, and I think that the vast majority of people would say the same. There is a fundamental decency in the world, and even if there are ideological or irrational barriers that prohibit that from being expressed all the time, that just makes cultivating that decency on a grassroots level all the more important." [From Emerson Siegle, my friend Jane Vance's son, now in his first year of graduate law school at UVA in Charlottesville, VA]

"I tell myself the story that what goes around, comes around...all things considered, the cosmos seeks balance. This helps me roll out of bed in the morning... Balance may really exist everywhere, even in politics and in acts of inhumane behavior, but we simply do not have the visual or mental capacity to see it at once...perhaps over time if we live long enough? Finally, I take comfort in the thought that, even in the midst of the most dire straits, our capacity to 'create' or 'imagine' (in the sense that Jacob Bronowski meant) sets us apart, not just from other species, but from our own despair." [From Mitzi Vernon, a friend living in Blacksburg]

There is an old Chinese maxim, which states that "people in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe." Soliciting the opinions and thoughts of my wonderful friends has certainly helped me defray some of the cynicism I feel about human nature, and it has somewhat alleviated my resentment toward the spoilers.

The lesson I take away from all this is that optimism in dark times doesn't necessarily mean not seeing what is right before your eyes. It doesn't have to mean a denial of what is going on. Keeping your inner Tinker Bell alive, even when things are as difficult and disappointing as they are now, is worthwhile if only because "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine." And that certainly beats out "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you get stabbed, poisoned, or thrown off the edge of a cliff." (This last comment is stolen from a New Yorker review by Anthony Lane, of Claude Chabrol's movies and how they instruct us.)

I could stop here, but I am going to leave the last words for my friend Elizabeth Indianos, who lives in FLA. She also sent me the photo above, which she took at Jon Stewart's rally:

"I can do more to solve the problems in the world by refusing to add low-energy thoughts of hate or disgust to the circumstances around us...In my own mind at least, good and evil are cyclical, not either/or. They compete, are fluctuating iotas, variables that ebb and flow--so do your Mother Teresa best. Pick a side. Stick to it and steer in the direction of the infinite power of the universe, no matter what."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Obliterating Arc of Hope and Optimism in Suicidal Tiimes

"Tell me about despair, yours. I will tell you about mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on." [Mary Oliver, from "Wild Geese"]

It was a strange weekend of ghoulish, pre-election mayhem, Halloween weirdness (those Tea Partiers, for instance, who seem to like wearing costumes all year round), and Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity." "We are in hard times," Stewart told the huge crowd, "not end times."

Instead of trick-or-treating with my neighbors up the road on Sunday, I stayed home and watched 60 Minutes, which turned out to be a program about American towns in which people have tragically lost businesses and jobs. It was very painful to witness. I have already seen quite a bit of this kind of media coverage across the country, where people can't stop crying, including the men. Parents, who can't afford to put food on the table or send their kids to college. So many folks in tears, while three billion dollars were being lavished, nay, squandered, on election attack ads. I found myself sitting alone and wondering, has the human race always been this way? Is this just how things are--and meanwhile the world goes on?

Thinking, too, about my last blog, I wondered if, way down deep, we are more Jim Crow than Desmond Tutu? How do Tutu and the Dalai Lama manage to chuckle over human foibles and frailty? Personally I have always shied away from eternal optimism, as if it were less a sign of enlightenment than some sort of protective sheen. It grates on me--which is why I decided to ask some friends what they thought in an email. I asked them about Desmond Tutu's statement, quoted in my last blog, that "the texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail...[and that] the perpetrators of injustice or oppression... will bite the dust." I asked point-blank: Has Desmond Tutu discovered the culminating secret of the universe? Or is he just singin' in the rain? Do you think the human spirit will ultimately prevail? Or are we, as Derrick Jensen says, fucked? I definitely got answers, many more than I expected, as follows:

I like [Tutu's] frame of mind. It’s a good meme to live by. Do I think it’s true? Well, Evolution works in strange ways, so it is hard, if not impossible, to know the outcome of the Evolutionary process. But Tutu’s optimism is undoubtedly grounded in his belief in God, and a God that will ultimately prevail in seeing to it that “the meek will inherit the Earth”. I don’t believe in such a God, but I do concur, with Tutu, in that I think those that live by greed, war, etc., will self-destruct; but I also believe they will take a lot of the “innocent” with them, as they are already doing. Still, I wish to believe that living a life of compassion and wisdom will ultimately assure our survival, over the oppression/violence/exploitation option. And of course, a giant meteor hitting the Earth could make all of this irrelevant. [Kirk Ballin, a friend in Roanoke, VA]

About I am starting out as an optimist. In an email to some last night, I was not...I said, “Unfortunately my Halloween costume is not that of an optimist!” Today I think just maybe he could be right...and how else to make it a true prophecy than to join in as many people in such a proclamation. Seeing Dachau recently oddly filled me with a strange pairing of disbelief/horror and hope. [Hank Foreman, a friend in Boone, NC]

Hmmmm, I wonder which direction I’ll go with this. Maybe singing in the rain is the secret of the universe? Yeah, I like that. I have some issues with “faith” as I perceive it to be espoused by mainstream religions but I do have faith “that good and laughter and justice will prevail”. I have to believe this at my core because if I can’t see the world this way then it might not exist, if nobody sees the world this way then I’m sure it won’t exist. Well said Mister Tutu. [Paul Zenner, a friend in Blacksburg]

I think what Desmond Tutu means is no one gets to leave alive. We are all heading in the same direction no matter what our plans are or how we live. Does he know more of what the next chapter will be? I do not know. When you step back and see how we repeat the same patterns over and over again from the beginings of civilization to the present, it starts to make us look pretty silly: what, another war, more stealing and cheating, more bad behavior? Ego and control out of hand again. I believe that there are enough of us who are aware so that we can make a shift and change. [Fern Shaffer, a friend in Chicago]

I don't know that the human race "has always been this way." We have created violence toward each other in every century of our known history: most agree that the 20th century was the most violent! As our human population doubles and quadruples in the 21st century, as oceans rise, polar ice and glaciers melt, forests diminish, fossil fuel runs out, clean water becomes increasingly polluted, arable land is covered in highways and cities, it seems inevitable that the competition for food and shelter can only intensify. The human spirit will prevail as hope is our only option. Whether our species does is another question. I think as long as we are in the limbic ancient parts of our brain arguing about whose God is the only God; denying the science of Gaia, we are ultimately doomed. The last 60 years have been about trying to "wake up" and we are no less ignorant, perhaps more ignorant due to fear now, than we were then. [Ciel Bergman, a friend in Santa Fe]

I went to the rally in Washington. It all went well and there certainly was a good vibe. Some ladies from New York felt that it should have had more political clout and that there should have been more Sarah-bashing. I think that it did show up the liberals as not aggressive.
I do hate all the money being spent on negative campaign ads. I try not to feel too deeply about all the injustices happening in the world and set little time aside to think about it, it is selfish but that is the only way I can prevail. I try to invite as much joy into my life as I can because I have to get thru it.
I did not buy any candy this year, did not want any corn syrup candy in the house because I knew I would be tempted to eat it. As I usually get a lot of really cute trick-or-treaters here, I decided to go see The Social Network. Did not feel like hiding in my own house. So, went off to the movies by myself and ended up being the only one in the theatre. Which is ok, except that three quarters thru the movie a commotion. Some of the employees thought that somebody had put this fake person in the seat, which happened to be me, and they came to investigate and when I moved, every one got a fright. [Renet Schuld, a friend in Roanoke]

The times are uneasy and there is the stench of hunters approaching, but I will not be quiet any more than you, and perhaps, at last, the proverb about pearls before swine is a lesson not in beauty but in force. Pearls, besides being beautiful, are too small. We need big heavy insulting baseball-hard BLOWS of truth with which to wallop the brutes on the temple, to scare them away. So I propose we keep blogging, keep painting, and keep loving each other...So I say, glory in our difference from these brutes. Show no fear, sally forth with swishes and fangs, and scare the hell out of the hunters until they run back to their same old retreats. Now may not be the time for dialogue but only for some distance between the two irreconcilable species. [Jane Vance, a friend in Blacksburg]

A wise teacher once said to me “one of the secrets to a happy and good life is to ”forgive yourself and everyone else immediately.” I have kept on believing that putting out into the world visions of love and compassion is vital, and I must stay with this vision of the sacredness of all humans. Due to the suffering all around us and the inequities we see every day, keeping to Tutu’s vision is much more important now then ever before. Every act of generosity and love helps. [Beth Swartz, a friend in Scottsdale, AZ]

The history of civilization is the history of crime.—P. D. Ouspensky. Laughter makes the world bearable, so I’m with the archbishop on this point. His belief that justice triumphs after a long struggle is an assertion of faith, not fact. Gurdjieff would call this “self-calming.” Good and evil are qualities we attribute to the world based upon our entirely subjective impressions of it. The world simply is. The responsible life is in the struggle to act toward the world and toward others with charity and compassion and understanding, without the expectation of reward or of an outcome to our liking. Life is in the living and not in the goal. [Bob Walker, a friend in Blacksburg]

We're fucked. [Bill Rutherfoord, a friend in Roanoke. This comment arrived on my computer early this morning, after last night's election.]

There are more comments, which will be in the next blog. Feel free, meanwhile, if you haven't already, to send me your thoughts. The sculpture in the illustration is by Meredith Bergmann.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Waiting on the Big Flip

He knows too much about too much, and he makes the rest of us look bad. On top of that, as the first black president America has ever had, he's been crippled by his own sense of decency. So brace yourself, America. Prepare for the Big Flip--and a set of drastically different, and even more unmanageable, circumstances for our country. Smarts are on the way out; mean and stupid is coming in.

Moral: don't stand out from the crowd or dare to provoke envy from the gods by being too smart or too fortunate. Instead, flaunt your stupidity, exult in your meanness, and produce Olympic levels of dick-swinging (a la Karl Rove) until you finally can smell the sweet, sweet smell of success. Just keep on bending the form to your own image until it snaps, and you win.

"Yes," Michael Moore wrote this week on Anna Wintour's blog, The Daily Beast, (referring to the recent incident when a female reporter was thrown down to the pavement by a Republican handler at a Rand Paul rally, and viciously stomped on), "one big boot is poised to stomp out whatever hopey-changey thing we might have had two years ago and secure this country in the hands of the oligarchs and the culture police....The young woman's name is Lauren Valle, but she is really all of us. For come this Tuesday, the right wing--and the wealthy who back them--plan to take their collective boot and bring it down hard on not just the head of Barack Obama but on the heads of everyone they simply don't like." If they win on Tuesday, warns Moore, they will not search for compromise, bipartisanship, nor will they look to find the middle ground. These Republicans mean business. Their boots are shined and ready.

In case you were wondering, the Senate GOP leader from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, has already made clear his own job description. The "single most important thing" Republicans want is to help Obama become a one-term president.

"Make no mistake about it," Moore writes. "A perfect storm has gathered of racists, homophobes, corporatists, and born-agains, and they are on fire. Two years of a black man who secretly holds socialist beliefs being the boss of them is more than they can stomach....They won't need a rope and a tree this time to effect the change they seek."

"I draw the line in the dust...and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," declared the firebrand North Carolina governor, George C. Wallace in his 1963 inaugural address. Plus ca change, as the Frenchies like to say, the more everything remains the same. "History doesn't repeat itself, Mark Twain wrote. "But it does rhyme." You really have to wonder about this path of so-called human evolution and enlightenment. "I know that we're in the final days of a campaign," Obama says, in his peculiar, semi-opaque way. "So it's not surprising that we're seeing this heated rhetoric. That's politics."

Really? Is that what it is?

Now 79 years old and ever cheery, another world-renowned black leader, the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, recently told Time magazine that the chief lesson he has learned is that "the texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail...In the end, the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stage of the world often seemingly unbeatable--there's no doubt at all that they will bite the dust." And then he roars with laughter: "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Wonderful!"

"Now there's a flip I can believe in," says Virgil, relishing the chance to butt in. "I really like this man with his ballerina costume name."

So what do you think? Has the Archbishop Tutu discovered the culminating secret of the universe, or is he just singin' in the rain? Are we Rome, or could we maybe be South Africa? I think I'll let you decide, because my horoscope today claims I have to give the impression I am on top of the world. "Everyone," it says, "wants to associate with someone who is positive and confident." Today I want to be a crowd-pleaser, so I'm giving it a shot. I won't say anything really bad. It's all in your hands.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Collapsing Behemoth

This was the week that news analyst Juan Williams was fired by his NPR employer because of an allegedly politically-incorrect comment he made (on Fox television), in which he admitted that the sight of Muslims garbed in full Muslim regalia in an airport made him feel nervous. (Who among us has honestly never had a feeling like that? And weren't we encouraged by our government to keep an eye out for any suspicious behavior?) But this was also, coincidentally, the same week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a recent speech before the youth wing of her conservative political party, declared that multiculturalism--the idea that disparate peoples can live side by side with each other--had "utterly failed." And then, in a historical instant, one of the linchpins of democracy--the whole ornate system that has successfully ordered the lives of millions--sighed, split apart, and died.

In Germany, Merkel went on to explain, "we feel bound to the Christian image of humanity--that is what defines us. Those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here." Germany is now home to 3.5 million Muslims, and to an accompanying fear that Germany's very "German-ness" is under assault and being "overrun" by foreigners. Does anything about this sound familiar? The crisis of scrabbling to "take our country back" seems to have become pandemic, a kind of mass delerium.

An unsettling example of anti-multiculturalist fervor has even struck my favorite Indian restaurant in Blacksburg--which has been stripped, like a defrocked priest, of all its previous Indian accouterments. Only the menu still remains Indian. Everything else--the mellow yellow walls, the majestic painting of the Taj Mahal with its beautiful pools, the female hostesses in gauzy silk saris, who would float like angels from table to table: all are gone. Only one of them remains; she now wears black slacks, white shirt, and a black vest, probably procured from Wal-Mart. The once mellifluous ochre walls have been repainted shit brown, the lighting is dim to dark, and one entire wall houses a gargantuan sports bar with the requisite TVs arrayed overhead. This former oasis, where you could actually have a civilized conversation over dinner, has been occupied by new customers: barfly footballers mostly, who emit an unending stream of painfully loud guffaws and howls from their perches at the bar. Heil there, Angela! We are all taking our countries back. You betcha!

In politics, America's fledgling Tea Party Patriots are hard at work. If their congressional and gubernatorial candidates succeed in November, they will do their best to eliminate not just mosques and saris and paintings of the Taj, but also income taxes, departments of education and the environment, the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, the new health-care reform act (substituting instead private accounts for Social Security, voucher programs for Medicare). They will do away with financial regulation of banks and corporations, and ultimately, they will try to eliminate the government itself. Nothing will interfere ever again with individual liberty, as provided for according to the U.S. Constitution. And, as the effects of financial fear, changing demographics, and ideology kick in, we will squarely face the awful fact that democracy, along with its multicultural proclivities, might not, as we all somewhat mistakenly presumed, be able to outlive both rust and larvae.

I've been reading a book about how granular effects can produce big collapses like the end of the USSR, and that historical forces do not necessarily work in ways we thought we could predict. Called "The Age of the Unthinkable," it is written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, and everyone who wants to better understand the perilous condition of our world today would do well to read this book.

The author cites a study by David Kotz and Fred Weir in their own book, "Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System," which sets out to answer the question of what brought the USSR down. "Great powers have declined in history," they write, "but never so rapidly and unexpectedly." They conclude, rather stunningly, that the USSR didn't collapse because of popular pressure upward from the grass roots of Soviet life, but because of the ruthlessness of Soviet elites--and some terrible miscalculations by Gorbachev. The "nomenklatura"--a term which refers to the elites of army officers and officials who actually ran the country but were a very small percentage of the Soviet population--decided, once Gorbachev began reforming a system that had protected their rights and privileges, that they had more to gain by letting the USSR fracture than by holding it together. The ultimate explanation for the sudden demise of the Soviet system, according to Weir and Kotz, "was that it was abandoned by most of its own elites." The similarity to what is happening in our own country today is, well, quite chilling.

Ramo comments further on the idea that the nomenklatura sold out their own system: "If you were sitting on top of the empire when it fell down, the nomenklatura logic went, you would surely be in the best place to pick up the pieces. This was a cold, selfish decision. It was also, fatally, one that Gorbachev hadn't anticipated in full."

It seems as if our own beleaguered president, Barack Obama, much like Gorbachev, also failed to anticipate the extreme depths of betrayal and viciousness that have been visited on his presidency. Republicans have deliberately broken the system, so that they will be in the best position to pick up the pieces. If Russia today seems like it has survived the ordeal of being deliberately broken, I have to wonder, at this point, if America will be so lucky.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Tale of Two Countries

Writing, for me, is always an occasion to search for hidden connections, synchronicities, and stark contrasts. The last few weeks were rich in the latter: the stunning contrast between Chile and the U.S., for instance, in their respective responses to crisis in their countries. On the one hand, human nature at its best; on the other, at its worst.

When thirty-three miners were trapped underground for sixty-nine days, the government of Chile turned crisis into opportunity, and made itself into a glorious beacon of courage, faith, and decency. Throughout the long ordeal, social bonding between the government, its people, and the miners became so inspirational that the fate of the miners set the whole world on fire. Everyone was watching, with baited breath, while the trapped men worked, sang, and prayed together in the underground darkness, while they awaited rescue for over two months.

Luis Urzua became the selfless leader who kept the men organized and motivated--insisting at the end on being the last man to leave in the specially constructed miracle capsule that ferried each miner through two thousand feet of rock, back to their waiting families. Sebastian Pinera, the President of Chile, had vowed to do everything possible to rescue the miners, no holds barred, and as each miner emerged from from the capsule, he received big bear hugs from the President.

"We aren't the same that we were before the collapse on Aug. 5th," the President said. "Today, Chile is a country much more unified, stronger, and much more respected and loved in the entire world." And he vowed that people wouldn’t be allowed to work in such unsafe and inhumane conditions again.

Not so for my country. Still reeling from the financial collapse in 2008, the U.S. is currently engaged in political flame wars propelled by brutal divisiveness, blood-curdling opportunism, and anonymous corporate donors who do not have the good of the country at heart. We look like a country contaminated by plague. The devotional frame of mind which set Chile alight is nowhere to be seen. In its place, unending tirades against everything; hatred and rage on a scale that Leonard Pitts aptly described as "end-times bacchanal."

For practices to flourish, according to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, it is necessary that they embody the virtues. American democracy has lost the virtues. The obscene amounts of money being pumped into the political system by corporations, to be used as attack funds in their attempt to take over the government, has draped our once stellar country under a black shroud.

So what can be done about this stupefying reality? Perhaps we need to consider who is stinking up the refrigerator. We could take a lesson from the likes of Chile, instead of from the dog-eat-dog mentality of Judas-types like Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell. If they succeed, every piece of Democratic legislation that's been passed so far will be challenged as unconstitutional. Before long, we'll go back to the deregulation of everything, and our country can really walk the plank to oblivion.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Epiphany in the Library

Last weekend, it was my birthday, and a friend took me to Abingdon, a two-hour drive from here. We stayed overnight at the historic Martha Washington Hotel, which dates back to the Civil War and has a reputation for being haunted.

After an oversized marguerita on the hotel verandah and a dinner of appetizers on the patio, we repaired to the library and were immediately transported to another century. The room was poorly lit: dim, low-hanging lights covered with small orange shades were suspended from the high ceiling above the tan leather sofa. A monstrously tall steel ladder leaned against rows of book shelves that stretched as high as the eye could see, and contained an interesting collection of volumes related to Southern history and literature.

My hand mysteriously gravitated towards a paperback called "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," by C. Vann Woodward. No sooner had I sat down, book in hand, next to my friend on the sofa, when a staff person appeared bearing a silver platter on which sat a bottle of port surrounded by six glasses. Yelping with excitement, we leapt up to try some, after which my friend said, "They're in here." "Who's in here?" I asked, baffled, as the library was empty, except for us. "The ghosts," she said. "They're behind the sofa, sitting in front of the fire place. I can feel them."

I'm not sure whether I even believe in ghosts, but since I was a little bit tipsy, I suggested inviting them over for a glass of port and a chat. My friend's eyes went wide. "You don't mess around with ghosts," she scolded, in her delicious Australian accent. She explained that she has been sensitive to ghostly presences ever since childhood.

"It's a man and a woman," she went on. "I'm sure of it." "Well," I giggled, "you've managed to narrow it down a lot. Good job!" Then she picked up a brochure from the low table in front of us and began reading out loud. The text turned out to describe the ghosts said to still be residing in the house--namely, a Civil War soldier who had been wounded and subsequently died there after being nursed--by a woman who also died, a short while later, of typhoid. "See," my friend said. "I told you." Once the talk of ghosts had receded (and I knew we weren't about to meet any), I opened the book on my lap and began to read a paragraph at random. That was when I had my epiphany about Barack Obama.

People who follow this blog will know that I write about Obama a lot. I study him, and the way he reacts to things. I have often wondered, for instance, how he withstands the hatred and vitriol and blatant racism that is relentlessly thrown at him every single day. Since it makes ME feel crazy, I have to wonder how, as the direct target, it makes HIM feel. Obama seems able to ignore the disrespect and endless ingratitude somehow--he just plods on irregardless, as if none of this were happening, much less to him. It's gotten to the point where people like Arianna Huffington (and some of her cohorts on Huffington Post) accuse him of being "conflict-averse." Are they right? I've sometimes wondered myself if this isn't a character flaw. But as I've said many times, Obama never takes the bait. He doesn't respond to disrespect; he doesn't get angry or attack back--causing some people to conclude that he is weak and insipid, "without a spine."

The mind, as Annie Dillard once wrote, is a marvelous monster. As I started to say, no sooner did I read the following paragraph--which I am about to share with you--from the book on my lap, my brain secreted, like goo, a profound insight that, at least for me, resolved the whole issue of Obama being conflict-averse once and for all:

"On 1 February [of 1960] four Negro college boys, freshmen at the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, asked politely for coffee at Woolworth's lunch counter and continued to sit in silent protest when refused. The 'sit-in,' nemesis of Jim, Crow [laws which mandated segregated public facilities], was born. In a week it spread to six other cities of the state, and by the end of the month to seven other Southern states. The self-discipline and fortitude of the youths, who silently bore abuse and insult, touched the white South's respect for courage." More than fifty years after that historic act, the former five-and-dime store became a Civil Rights Center and Museum.

All the major civil rights organizations were committed to the Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence, as prescribed by their leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. "We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer," King told the whites, "and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."

What happened in the library was that I had a clear vision of Obama, sitting in solidarity with those youths at the lunch counter, calmly exercising "self-discipline and fortitude as they silently bore abuse and insult." The students didn't fight back, but it wasn't because they were "conflict-averse." In a moment of insight, I saw the lunch counter morph into the White House.

The next morning at breakfast in the hotel, while eating my sweet potato pancakes and bacon, I asked my friend if she would think I was a bad person if I went back and stole that book from the library. Not at all, she said. Before checking out, we went back into the library. I got momentarily distracted reading the op-ed pages in the Wall Street Journal, a copy of which was sitting on the table. (The bottle of port was gone.) I had already taken the book from the shelf, and it was lying next to me on the sofa.

My friend excused herself for a minute and went outside. When she came back, she was merrily waving the book at me (I hadn't even realized she'd taken it), chiming "Happy Birthday, Suzi!" She had just gone outside to negotiate its purchase with the front desk clerk. Then she said, "You were going to steal it, Suzi. I couldn't let you turn yourself into a criminal--not on your birthday anyway." It could well be the most extraordinary birthday present I ever got.

A few days later, back in Blacksburg, I found myself reading "Tea and Crackers," an article in Rolling Stone magazine about Tea Partiers, written by Matt Taibbi. The author traveled around the country interviewing random people at their rallies. At one fundraising event in northern Kentucky for Libertarian Rand Paul, Taibbi struck up a conversation with a retired judge who was introducing the candidate at the event. Taibbi asked him what he thinks about Paul's position on the Civil Rights Act. Rand Paul has called the Act unconstitutional and believes it should be repealed, because it exemplifies an unacceptable government intrusion into the private realm. "Well, hell," the judge replies, "if it's your restaurant, you're putting up the money, you should be able to do what you want. I tell you, every time he [Paul] says something like that, in Kentucky he goes up 20 points in the polls. With Kentucky voters, it's not a problem."

In Lexington, Taibbi posed the same question to a local Tea Party organizer. "You as a private-property owner have the right to refuse service for whatever reason you feel will better your business," she replies, comparing the Civil Rights Act to onerous anti-smoking laws. "If you're for small government, you're for small government."

"You look into the eyes of these people when you talk to them and they genuinely don't see what the problem is," Taibbi writes. "It's no use explaining that while nobody likes the idea of having to get the government to tell restaurant owners how to act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the tool Americans were forced to use to end a monstrous system of apartheid that for 100 years was the shame of the entire Western world. But all that history is not real to Tea Partiers; what's real to them is the implication in your question that they're racists, and to them that is the outrage, and it's an outrage that binds them together. They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology of Rand Paul because it's so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart."

This is from an article from the October 15, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone, now available on newsstands. In the same issue, Jann S. Wenner interviews Barack Obama, asking him:

"How do you feel about the fact that day after day, there's this really destructive attack on whatever you propose? Does that bother you? Has it shocked you?"

"I don't think it's a shock.," he replies. "I had served in the United States Senate; I had seen how the filibuster had become a routine tool to slow things down, as opposed to what it used to be, which was a selective tool — although often a very destructive one, because it was typically targeted at civil rights and the aspirations of African-Americans who were trying to be freed up from Jim Crow. But I'd been in the Senate long enough to know that the machinery there was breaking down.

"What I was surprised somewhat by, and disappointed by, although I've got to give some grudging admiration for just how effective it's been, was the degree to which [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell was able to keep his caucus together on a lot of issues. Eventually, we were able to wear them down, so that we were able to finally get really important laws passed, some of which haven't gotten a lot of attention — the credit-card reform bill, or the anti-tobacco legislation, or preventing housing and mortgage fraud. We'd be able to pick off two or three Republicans who wanted to do the right thing.
"But the delays, the cloture votes, the unprecedented obstruction that has taken place in the Senate took its toll. Even if you eventually got something done, it would take so long and it would be so contentious, that it sent a message to the public that "Gosh, Obama said he was going to come in and change Washington, and it's exactly the same, it's more contentious than ever." Everything just seems to drag on — even what should be routine activities, like appointments, aren't happening. So it created an atmosphere in which a public that is already very skeptical of government, but was maybe feeling hopeful right after my election, felt deflated and sort of felt, "We're just seeing more of the same."

Readers, have no doubt: Woolworth's lunch counter is still very much alive within the confines of even the newly decorated Oval Office. If these Republican/Tea Partiers manage to win in November, they will do their best to repeal everything ever authored by Obama. And more.

You think it can't happen? I'm with Marie Burns, a reader who comments regularly on op-ed pieces in the New York Times. She recently wrote: "Just yesterday I read that 41% of Americans can't name the Vice President of the United States. But somehow a bunch of them have positive proof President Obama was born in Kenya & is plotting to impose Islamic law on the nation. I'm not laughing anymore. I'm alarmed."

"Me, too," says Virgil. "It's a humanity problem. I'm putting the date on my calendar and reserving a seat at the lunch counter in advance: my way of expressing the virtues of beauty, clarity, and strength without embellishment.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Newts & Grizzlies (2)

Today, the Roanoke Times ran an editorial called "The Party of Crazy," about how the Tea Party is driving the GOP very far to the Right--and wondering if anyone is paying attention. Most people still aren't, even though we are now fully launched into a corporate right wing coup against the government. The RT editors refer back to the moment in 2008 when John McCain was campaigning in a town hall meeting, and a weird, stricken look appeared briefly on his face when a woman in the crowd shouted that Obama scared her, because he was an Arab. McCain hastened to reassure her that, no, he wasn't. (Would he even dare to do that now?)

Spreading fear about Obama's "un-Americanness" and seeking to establish his illegitimacy as president, has burgeoned from a cottage industry of "birthers" to an industrial-strength anti-Obama, anti-Muslim culture war of crisis proportions. Last week one of the most outrageous examples of Republican Swiftboating ever seen occurred when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich creamed in his jeans over an anti-Obama essay written by Dinesh D'Souza for Forbes magazine. The article is based on D'Souza's soon-to-be published book entitled "The Roots of Obama's Rage." (Obama's rage? Did I hear that correctly? Isn't everyone always complaining about Obama's inability to express rage?)

Anyway, Dinesh D'Souza (whom Maureen Dowd has irresistibly called "Ann Coulter-in-pants") puts forward the stunning thesis that Obama's policies are an inherited, genetic carryover from his African father. D'Souza suggests that the U.S. is now being ruled "according to the dream of a Luo tribesman of the 1950's...[a] philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, [and] is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.” Is this supposed to be taken seriously?

Obviously Gingrich thinks so. He has wholeheartedly endorsed D'Souza's goonish thesis, declaring it "the most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama." Newt claims D'Souza shows how the Prez "is so outside our comprehension" that you can only understand him "if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior." OMG. Newt is one of the crazies out there, hoping and plotting to replace Obama in 2012. UGH.

I cranked myself up and went to Wikipedia to see what I could learn about newts that might be useful. Many newts, I found out, produce toxins in their skin secretions as a defense mechanism against predators. Some newts of the Pacific Northwest produce enough tetrodotoxin to kill an adult human and poison their enemies. Should you come in contact with a newt, proper hand-washing techniques should be followed due to the toxins they produce and bacteria they carry.

As the professed author of this blog, Virgil suggests you stop reading now and go wash your hands. Just to be on the safe side, I'm going to do that, too.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Midterm Madness: Newts and Grizzlies on the Rise

Virgil wants to know, how much do you really understand, or care, about what's happening politically in this country? Because once a system tumbles off a ledge and goes catastrophically bad, he says, it is very hard to return it to its earlier state. Usually it's impossible. Indeed, it may already be too late. However, my beloved alligator assistant is definitely sounding the alarm. Watch out, he says, because the newts and grizzlies are taking over. Not paying attention while this is happening is the equivalent of drinking hemlock. Metaphorically speaking, recent midterm nomination results have produced a new gusher that could well destroy the country, much as the unstoppable oil threatened to do for months in the gulf. Virgil says you can't let the bad wipe you out, but if our government snaps, which it shows every sign of doing, it will remain snapped forever.

I was glad to see that President Obama was imnmediately on to the danger. In his weekly radio address this Saturday, he also sounded the alarm--although I fear few people were paying much attention:

"Back in January, in my State of the Union Address, I warned of the danger posed by a Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United. This decision overturned decades of law and precedent. It gave the special interests the power to spend without limit – and without public disclosure – to run ads in order to influence elections. Now, as an election approaches, it's not just a theory. We can see for ourselves how destructive to our democracy this can become. We see it in the flood of deceptive attack ads sponsored by special interests using front groups with misleading names. We don't know who's behind these ads or who's paying for them. Even foreign-controlled corporations seeking to influence our democracy are able to spend freely in order to swing an election toward a candidate they prefer."

This was my first thought as well, once the election results were in. The real story playing out in front of us all in real time, is that the Tea Party, meant to be seen as an outsider and leaderless insurgency haphazardly run by "we the people," is actually being orchestrated and bankrolled by wealthy individuals, powerful lobbyists, and corporations who want nothing less than to take the government down. (So what else is new?) Only this: given that the Tea Party just ate the Republican Party for breakfast, it now has the Democratic Party on the menu for lunch. Does that worry you? Maybe not, but it definitely worries me.

For some Democrats, the election by Republicans of patently unqualified and rogue candidates like Christine O'Donnell to run against them in November was an occasion for positive rejoicing. The question being bandied around all week was whether or not this represented an "implosion, or fracturing, of the GOP (and was therefore good for Democrats), or whether something more sinister is going on-- the ascendancy, for instance, of Sarah Palin as the new leader of the Republican party and a sharp shift in its center of gravity to the Far Right. It was, after all, her endorsement of these various rogue candidates that seemed to carry them to victory.

In Senate races, Tea Party candidates were winners in Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, Delaware, and Florida, all of them overcoming rivals, like the moderate Republican Mike Castle in Delaware, who is well liked in the state and had the full backing of his party. Most Republicans still consider Palin unelectable, though her staffers, it seems, are working under the assumption that she's running. And make no mistake: if a nobody like Christine O'Donnell can win the Republican nomination for Joe Biden's old Senate seat in Delaware, well, nothing should be beyond our wildest imagining. (Look for more on Christine O'Donnell in the next installment of my "Newts and Grizzlies" thread.)

Time magazine's latest cover story on the Tea Party depicts a giant tea cup with a limp GOP elephant slumped inside, its trunk dangling perilously over the side. The elephant looks to be nearly drowning. (A perfect image, I thought, of co-optation.) Now that the Tea Party has taken over the GOP, its motto (as put forward by Rush Limbaugh) is: vote for the person farthest to the Right.

Former master-mind strategist for the Republican party, Karl Rove, was openly aghast when O'Donnell (who looks and sounds just like her sponsor, Sarah Palin) actually won the nomination. "She's nutty," he said, adding that she would lose the seat, and maybe even possible control of the Senate as well, for the party. Palin then took care of him sweetly, in one of her better barracuda moments, sending this sugar-coated message straight to the jugular: "Bless his heart," she declared. "We love our friends there in the machine...I say 'Buck up.'"

She's right, Karl. I think you should buck up, because things are not all that bad out there for your crowd. You've trained your minions so well that within twenty-four hours, they had all (including even you) closed ranks in support of every Tea Party candidate and their radical agenda. "Let there be no mistake," announced Senator John Cornyn, "the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and I personally as the committee's chairman, strongly stand by all of our Republican nominees." After which he promptly sent a check for $42,000 to her campaign. Meanwhile, John Boehner has already invited Tea Party activists to help "drive the debate" in Washington and help shape the legislative agenda. Inside the tea cup, Republicans are hanging on for dear life.

Karl, you and I both know there is no individual GOP candidate. There is only the lockstep party you created, committed to Obama's failure even at the expense of the country. So take heart from the words of your fellow Republican, David Brooks:

"It doesn’t matter that public approval of the G.O.P. is now at its all-time low. It doesn’t matter that the Tea Party rhetoric is sometimes extreme. The poll suggests that roughly 50 percent of Americans haven’t thought about the Tea Parties enough to form an opinion. They’re not paying attention because they don’t see it as one of the important dangers they face. Who knows? Maybe they even sort of like the fact that a ragtag band of outsiders is taking on the establishment and winning."

Enjoy your hemlock, folks. And while you're at it, don't forget to buy the tee-shirt.

Monday, September 13, 2010

It Feels Like a Real Fight to Me

David Plouffe wants us [Obama supporters, that is] to "tell our communities" what it will be like if the Republicans regain control of Congress. Since my mind freezes at the mere prospect of that rancid possibility--which, according to pundits and pollsters, is a reality coming at us with the force of an avalanche--I am going to use my blogging time here to respond to that request. It's what I was planning to write about about anyway, because should things should turn out as currently predicted, I believe our country will be dead in the water. Toast. So it behooves us to start paying serious attention, unless we are willing to write our own obituaries. And I'm not.

"If this life not be a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight," wrote William James.

It feels like a real fight to me, not political theater, to the point where anybody who is not fully engaged is signing up for the biggest mistake of their lives. America is facing death by Republican kryptonite. With or without his former tan, John Boehner (otherwise known as "the orange man") is positively itching to ally himself more fully with Mitch McConnell in dismantling the U.S. government and whatever inventions and richnesses it may have accrued over the years. This is the project that excites them above all else: causing the entire structure of government to collapse and then disappear. Can it be done? I think it can. So if you are someone who is feeling acute Obama fatigue and disappointment, who thinks the Democrats deserve to lose power, you need to get over it, right now.

Because if the GOP takes over in November, we can look forward to fewer services and even fewer jobs, a platform of constant phony investigations, and repeals of every piece of legislation passed during the Obama presidency so far. Plus a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran, privatized Social Security, deregulation of corporations and of the whole financial industry. Wherever you happen to live, you will see Sarah Palin and Mama Grizzlies and Tea Partiers from your front porch.

This Sunday in the New York Times. Maureen Dowd wrote about how her sister Peggy--a Republican-leaning voter who switched her allegiance in 2008 in order to support Obama--is now disaffected and has jumped ship again and will probably vote for Mitt Romney, eek, if he runs. As is usual with Dowd, it was a fun piece to read, but it got its punch at Obama's expense. Obama-bashing, in my view, has now become a luxury this country can no longer afford. One reader of Dowd's essay commented back eloquently, saying that he, too, was disappointed in Obama's performance as president. But he added:

"I will vote for him because I am afraid. I am afraid of what the Republicans and their Blue Dog cohorts will do to this country. I ask myself: Do I want equanimity or John Boehner? Do I prefer the pretense of economic populism to an unabashed bludgeoning by water carriers for the rich and powerful? Do I want corporations to begin to fully and freely exercise their rights as citizens? Further: Have I been hankering for a repeal of health care reform or does coverage for pre-existing conditions still seem like a good thing? Am I pleased that Elizabeth Warren was at least in the game?"

"No. It's not about inspiration anymore; it's about survival. The Republicans seem to have convinced a large part of the populace that throwing water onto a drowning man is a good thing (The Hard-Hearted Hannah Policy). Well, it's not. (One could look it up if one wanted to take the time). I believe that after considering the respective merits between and among an inner tube, life jacket, beach ball, flotsam, jetsam, empty beer keg, milk carton, Chinese take-out container, and a hero sandwich, President Obama would come to a well-considered decision and he would not throw water on a drowning man." You may find this a feeble reason to support someone, but really it's not--not when you realize you are, yourself, that drowning man.

Today, Republican columnist for the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker, used her column to send a letter of apology to the Muslim world. "Dear Muslim World," she began, "I am writing you today as an American citizen who is deeply embarrassed by current events in my country." She then referred to the controversy over the Islamic Center near Ground Zero, and to the Dennis-the-Menace pastor in Florida who had threatened to burn Korans last Saturday. As it turned out, no Korans got burned, but that is no longer likely to stop the hate-America rallies unleashed by these events in Muslim countries. Nor is it likely to placate the sad American Muslim boy I saw briefly interviewed on TV, who claimed he was now being horribly taunted and harassed by his school mates.

Somewhat naively, Parker suggests to the Muslim world that it should "ignore Pastor Terry Jones, because he's nobody," and no one except his tiny congregation cares what he says. Even though many of us would like for him to crawl back under his rock and stay there, she says, "alas, our laws do not forbid stupidity." (What Parker calls stupidity, I call treason.) I can't help wondering how many of the raging Muslims I saw protesting on TV, both here and in the Middle East, will read Parker's article and be appeased. "I am sorry," she writes, "that we [in the news media] handed [Pastor Jones] a megaphone, and I apologize. Please be patient. In a few days, he will be forgotten." Sure, right. No problem.

Apologies can certainly soften enmities and take the edge off distress, but somehow, I doubt that Parker's tender talk and regrets are likely to mitigate the unwholesome rage that has been triggered everywhere. That said, I had almost forgotten to check in with the irrepressible Virgil, who has mastered the animal art of healing with his paws. Pushing his wet nose against my ear, he whispers something. I can't quite believe what I'm hearing. "It sure makes a change from schnitzels," he says, as his loose cheeks balloon into a guffaw.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fanning the Flames of Jihad

I usually check in with the opinion page of the New York Times online every day. Some of the regular columnists-- Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd and Bob Herbert, for instance--are like dark chocolate, perfect for a political chocaholic like me. Often, when I enjoy an article I've just read, I will follow up by reading some of the readers' comments that follow, to see how others have responded. One reader wrote something recently that was so intensely stark and fierce and brief, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. "What's next?" the person wrote (it was in the context of a discussion about where the country was headed.) "WW III. Obama is the last president the United States will ever have."

I prefer writing blogs when I am either fired up or wigged out--horrified or excited by something. I'm not in the business of simple reportage. I prefer digging among ashes, probing for synchronicities with blunt instruments, recognizing the kind of hidden connections you can't take your eyes off of once you've spotted them. This week, it was the sudden appearance of a semi-obscure but menacing pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida, Terry Jones, who proposes to "commemorate" the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by burning copies of the Koran. He has been collecting them from supporters for some time, and is planning a big bonfire on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. which is this coming Saturday, god help us all.

Not a good idea, declared General Petraeus; a provocation that could undermine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and seriously threaten the safety of our troops. Afghan protesters have already staged a "death to America" rally and flag-burning in Kabul in advance of the event. The photo above shows Afghans burning an effigy of Pastor Jones in a demonstration against the U.S. on Monday, September 6th. The protesters were also calling for the death of President Barack Obama.

Jones says he's praying on it, having been called on to desist by the likes of the Pope and Hillary Clinton, the White House and heads of many religious organizations, and even Mitt Romney. Public book-burning is more a Nazi than a Christian thing: it won't play well, according to everyone. Remember when a U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo Bay prison flushed a Koran down the toilet and set off a rash of riots across the Muslim world? Remember the devastating conflagrations that tore through Denmark when their national newspaper ran a cartoon about Mohammed wearing a bomb in his turban? But the Pastor, instead of being tried for treason, or viewed as a threat, is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Burning books, in this country, is not illegal.

Once again we are proving ourselves as the best recruiters for Islamic extremism around the world. Welcome to the surreal world of U.S. national security. On this evening's news, it was announced that the Pastor has decided to go through with his plan, despite the many entreaties from people begging him not to. He has been "called by God" to do this.

Something very deadly, according to my intuition, is incubating here--but I don't want to be the one who scratches in the first faint marks of the dawn of World War III.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

About Things Standing and Not Standing

It seems that the 150-year-old chestnut tree that once offered solace and hope to Anne Frank while she was in hiding from the Nazis, was recently toppled by wind and heavy rain. The fungus-ridden trunk was badly diseased and snapped 3 feet above the ground. Fortunately no one was injured when the tree fell, but the symbolism of the stricken tree did not escape me. I began to think about things standing and not standing.

Last winter, in the town where I live, the roof of the local high school gymnasium collapsed from the weight of a heavy snowfall. Luckily, it too hurt no one when it fell, but the accident did lead to the entire building being condemned. By some politically unfortunate algorithm, the displaced high schoolers have, this fall, been directed to occupy the site of the middle school building--thereby displacing, in a kind of domino effect, the middle schoolers--who are now having to commute to an old and abandoned campus in the next town. The main building there dates from 1905, and is considered to be haunted.

I learned this from my friend Jane Vance, who is a special aids teacher for the middle school, and is quite put out of joint about having to add half an hour (each way) to her daily commute. Meanwhile, intrigued by the weird history of the place, Jane did some research via Google. The story which she discovered involves two "Black Sisters," so-called because they always wore black, who ran a boarding school in the main building and had an infamous reputation as murderers. "Two people died in the building," she wrote me, "and a third--a child--was drowned in a well out back, which is now covered over. The deaths were all violent, and...Google will regale you with scary stories about the Sisters and the flickering lights, whispers, and weird shadows in the old main building."

In a subsequent conversation with the current building inspector, who has been inspecting the old place for thirty years, Jane learned that the Black Sisters still play their tricks with brooms. Janitors leave the brooms leaning against the wall, but when they come back, one broom is always standing, unsupported, in the middle of the room. Somewhat skeptical, Jane decided to check out the downstairs boiler room on her own, and sure enough, she found a broom standing by itself in the middle of the room. She took the photo above, and sent it to me from her iPhone. "'Haunted seems a good word for the boiler room," she wrote, "not because a broom stands there, but because the place FEELS humid with the residue of the past...or the wrong mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen. You'll absolutely notice the strange feeling when you are down there."

"In south Asia," she adds, "there is a word--geomantic--which means that some places are charged, as if ionically, with the residue of long years of what people's intentions there have been. So some shrines are believed to be potent--able to make you more serene, for example, by virtue of mere proximity to them, because of the effects of so many people who have been there before you, refining their intentions, trying to be good, in that space."

Which leads me, in a rather neat segue, to the symbology of Glenn Beck, standing geomantically on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, in the very place where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Crowning himself with the good vibes of all the people who have been there before him (including Barack Obama), Beck implored the gathered crowds to "turn back to God" and return America to the values on which it was founded.

"We are so honored to stand here today," declared his distinguished guest speaker, Sarah Palin, the self-appointed leader of the Mama Grizzlies. "We feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," she said--as spooky in her way as Jane's stand-alone broom.

It is claimed that in ancient times, certain trees were oracular. They could speak and deliver messages. I can't help wondering if the toppling of Anne Frank's beloved tree does not contain an oracular message for our times--signaling that a whole way of life is no longer standing, along with its heady promise of better tomorrows. Arianna Huffington wrote a blog about Beck's rally, in which she said: "What were thought by many to be the ingredients of the good life just a short time ago--a job, a home, a secure retirement, a college education for your kids, and prospects for a brighter future for them--are no longer attainable simply by hard work and playing by the rules. And it doesn't appear that this will change any time soon."

It seems like we will all need to collectively redefine what we mean by the good life in going forward. These are indeed heady days. Can we learn to navigate without the pole stars--and the bourgeois goal--of better times ahead which we have for so long set for ourselves?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sitting on the Fence

I'm not just a fan, it's worse than that: i'm pretty much addicted to Charlie Rose. His program of masterful nightly conversations on TV--with everyone in the wide world who is, as the police like to put it, "a person of interest"--normally airs right across the midnight hour, a time when I am most definitely asleep, all being well. However, I do watch reruns from the night before at 5 o'clock on the following afternoon--that is, until they vanished quite suddenly this summer from their usual slot on the airwaves. I was distraught. Charlie Rose keeps me savvy and sane. Because of him, I always have a handle on whatever matters most, whether it is the latest state of the Middle East peace process, the cultural import of "Avatar," President Ahmadinejad's current antics, what the guys from Politico think about the Obama administration, the significance of the new iPad, the death of John Updike, or the government bailout of the auto industry. Whatever is going on, Charlie is on it, and I get educated.

With the help of a friend, I recently discovered that reruns were still being broadcast, but at a new, ungodly time: 6 a.m. Now, most mornings during the week, you can find me glued to the TV between the hours of 6 and 7. No one in their right mind watches TV at 6 a.m. But what's a besotted girl to do?

This past week Charlie had two incredible interviews, one with NBC newscaster Brian Williams, and another with Thad Allen, the administration's point man for the BP oil spill. To my astonishment in each case, I found myself thinking the same thought: I wish this guy was our president. Maybe the country would be rendered sane again, if somebody other than Obama was running it.

I just couldn't imagine either of these men being subject to the insane levels of disrespect and abuse that Obama is subject to, every single day. I've thought about this a lot. Why is he becoming ever more misunderstood and, yes, villified? Finding the answer to this has become, in a way, my private Zen koan. How much of the prejudice and confusion has been stoked by poisonous Republican lies and the disgusting misinformation campaign spread by the media, and how much has been triggered by Obama himself, through his own, sometimes odd, responses and behaviors in the public arena?

Last week Obama announced his support for the constitutional right of any American to practice their faith freely--including the construction of the "Ground Zero mosque" at the site of the old Burlington Coat factory store in lower Manhattan. The "mosque," it should be pointed out, is not actually a mosque, but an Islamic cultural center containing a prayer room upstairs. Nevertheless, intense feelings have been stirred up across the public and political spectrums, from hard-right Republican Newt Gingrich, who declared that building a "mosque" two blocks from Ground Zero would be like putting a swastika outside the Holocaust Museum, all the way to left-of-center Democrat Howard Dean. who considers the building of the mosque as "an affront," not to forget Rush Limbaugh, who now refers to the president as "Imam Obama." Obama, it must be said, only added to the spectacle of disarray when he backpedaled the following day, claiming, after his initial show of support, "i was not, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about." So, to be more precise, it's constitutionally legitimate to do it, but maybe, on second thought, it's not such a good idea.

For me, that was a revelatory moment. I finally understood how Obama speaks freely when in defense of the constitution, and the constitutional rights it bestows on all citizens, but he seems much more constrained when it is a matter of sharing his personal views. It's almost as if he believes his personal views don't really matter. The constitution matters, and upholding it. After many repeats of this approach, on issues like the rights of gays to serve openly in the military, or to get married, or even his view of the public option during the health-care debate, a pattern of contrived impartiality has finally emerged: in controversial matters, it would appear that Obama prefers sitting on the fence. That is why, I think, people constantly criticize him for not standing up for things--for not being clear about what he really believes, and thus, for not being a good leader.

However, as my friend Ray Kass cogently pointed out to me, when you sit on the fence, you tend to lose both sides--which is exactly what is now happening to Obama. Definition of a fence-sitter: a person who won't take sides in a controversy. One who takes a position of neutrality or indecision. Out of this confusion, Republicans make merry. One in five Americans now believes that Obama is a Muslim. And that he was born in Kenya. How can this be? "You can have an opinion on the New York mosque, for or against," as Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times last week. "But there aren't two sides to the question of whether Obama is a Muslim." Many people have a confused view of Muslims, she adds, and the president seems unable to help navigate the country through its Islamophobia.

Ray says that Dems and liberals need to band together to beat the Republicans at their own game. They need to launch a counter-campaign of their own, gleefully spreading fear and disinformation about Republicans. I love the idea, for instance, of convincing 20 percent of the population that Mitch McConnell is really a closet Hindu. Or maybe a lesbian in drag. Or, dare I say it, a racist?

Please understand that I am not actually stating that the president is a fence-sitter, merely that it appears that way, in his understandable efforts to make himself less of a moving target. I believe that he does have strong convictions; but it also seems natural for him to acknowledge all sides of an issue, to give everyone an equal voice, and not to insist on only one opinion--his own--by coming down hard on one side or the other. Somehow, however, he has managed to miss the point here, which is that as the president, people expect and want to know what he thinks. Fence-sitting is ultimately working against him. Nobody much cares, for instance, what I think, except maybe a few friends. But then, I am not president of the United States--if I was, everyone would.

At this point, I think Obama needs to revisit the words of his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke about his opposition to the Vietnam war and the role of moral leadership in times of controversy:

"I'm not a consensus leader... I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. On some positions a coward has asked the question is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right, and that is where I find myself today."

PersonaIly I believe Obama is quite capable of this. The question remains, however, as to when he will decide to get off the fence and just go for it. The crucial sentence here is that a real leader doesn't search for consensus; he molds it.