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.