Thursday, June 26, 2003

Stars & Stripes Hijacked

My elder son is a creative dresser.  A few Sundays ago, we went over to the flea market to find a birthday gift for his girlfriend.  As he browsed through some books and records, the vendor noticed the American Flag he had sewn on the back of his blue jean jacket many years ago.  Seeing it, he immediately told us about a just returned GI who had visited his stand the week before.  His effusiveness clearly communicated his own support of the Iraq war and, with the flag and all, he assumed we agreed.  That is not the case, but his assumption reminded me again that our Stars & Stripes have been hijacked.

I'm not big on flags.  My family arrived from Nazi Germany in 1937 a month before I was born.  Like many Americans with similar experiences, they were devoted to their adopted country with an intensity that often alludes the native born.  In our family everyone, in every generation, votes.  At the same time, having lived under a totalitarian regime where flag waving and the like became so symbolic, they always were squeamish about any show of ultra-nationalism, and thusly about flag waving even in their beloved United States.  I think their view was prescient.

Without discounting the many people of all opinions who have strong attachments to Old Glory — showing colors has become a not so subtle sign of "loyalty" and support for the President.  Partisans have taken ownership of this non-partisan symbol and made it their own -- taken hold and made it sacrosanct.  The lapel flag has become a loyalty uniform, and I'm sure no one in the administration with any ambition would dare come to work without it.  That in itself is a little unnerving because it smacks of civilian uniform wearing, if even on a mini-scale.  Remember George Bush's threatening "either you're with us or against us" words after 9/11? Well wearing the flag answers in the affirmative.

Far more disturbing than the fact that Conservatives have appropriated the Stars and Stripes for their own agenda, is that we have permitted it to happen.  We all know the bumper stickers about supporting our troops and God blessing America (right or wrong), but where are the bumper stickers saying "free to dissent?'  Now don't get me wrong, I'm really not a bumper sticker kind of guy, with our without flag.  The point is that in a very powerful way, this abrogation of flag rights is a metaphor for the continued and very audible silence that is threatening both our present and our future.  Disturbing things are being done by these flag wavers, things that in many cases potentially threaten the very democracy and way of life that we claim to defend.  The vast majority of Americans, not to mention our increasingly pathetic and media conglomerate controlled press, are either giving them a pass or acquiescing by simply looking on in silence.

We've invaded two countries and, regardless of how you might feel about these conflicts, at street level neither is doing very well in the aftermath.  We have instituted Homeland Security which is big on propaganda but small on funding.  The cheap talk leaves the cost on local desks which is part of why our states and cities are in financial crisis.  We have given extraordinary powers to an Attorney General whose respect for individual rights and ultra-conservative social agenda is highly suspect.  Our economy is in the dumper with more than 2 Million American's having lost their jobs since the Supremes put George W in office.  Tax cuts won't help those people giving new meaning to the cliché "adding insult to injury."  It also means that the previously unemployed, many of them less prepared and qualified, have been pushed back another rung in the job line, extending their life of poverty even further. That's a consequence no one is talking about.  The forces against Choice and Gun Control are gaining in political ground, if not wider popular support.  Women may once again be driven into the back alleys of shadow medicine and more handguns may land on the streets.  International treaties affecting the quality and indeed the endurance of human life have been written off.  Meanwhile the President continues his saber rattling bravado which they say isn't really imperialistic, but "if it walks like a duck…."  And they have taken our flag.

Take a look at the red, white and blue.  Don't you want it back?

Friday, June 13, 2003

All That Fit News

I'm a creature of habits (an understatement, my children will tell you). One such habit is my morning routine that begins with two acts confirming the day has begun: reaching out to turn on my computer and picking up the remote to flick on the news. For habit-impaired people like me, it's hard to break any part of the routine, but after many years of the Networks and CNN, I've switched to the BBC. In fact, aside from regularly

tuning in to Jim Lehrer and Bill Moyers on PBS, I find myself watching significantly less television news than ever before.

Another habit, begun it would seem before I was born, is The New York Times. The Times has gotten bigger and more featured than it needs to be, but it's still the best. Needless to say, as a lifelong reader I too was unhappy to learn of the lapses that ultimately resulted in the ousting of its two top editors. Unhappy, but not turned off. Perhaps it's because, despite the high regard in which I hold the Ochs family trust, I don't think even the Times is superhuman. Perfect is just not in the natural order and we've seen ample examples of lapses in every segment of life. To be sure, excellence and quality of reporting are real issues for contemporary journalism at the Times and elsewhere, but what bothers me even more these days is content.

Some of my friends don't like the BBC because they think it is slanted against Israel. That's probably more a case of the myopia we Jews suffer when we see our survival at risk than of reality, but that's another subject. I find the BBC pretty evenhanded. But what really attracts me is that BBC presents real news seriously. Wonder of wonders there is a big world out there and, despite half hour broadcasts, they are able to cover more than one story at a time. Their cameras routinely go to "exotic" Continents like Africa and Asia where, if you can believe it, important things are going on each and every day. You may not hear about it too often, but thousands are dying in civil conflicts, from epidemic disease and, in more places than any of us would like to think about, from hunger. Like our own media, BBC focused on Iraq during the war and even expanded its coverage to an hour, but even then that larger world didn't disappear.

The other morning, thinking my abandonment of CNN perhaps too precipitous, I switched over when the BBC World News ended at 7:30. Lacey Peterson is what I heard and it was only the middle of an extensive report. Now don't get me wrong, I feel very sorry for her and a grieving family, but in the scheme of things is that really major news? On the day Lacey was murdered, I'm reasonably sure other women were as well — that day and the ones before and after. We'll never know their names despite deaths that are no less tragic, no less important to their near and dear. Lacey Peterson, yet another made-for-TV and the Tabloids "news" drama. Another (thank your Frank Rich) Mediathon. No ours is not a problem of shoddy journalism, though that is part of it, but of trivial content. The world is falling apart, millions of innocents have died in Africa in the last few years alone, democracy is being stifled in places like Indonesia and we're talking about Lacey Peterson. Shame on us.

David Brinkley died this week. When he and Chet Huntley held sway at NBC and Cronkite told us "that's the way it is" on CBS, I became a TV news junky. I also felt pretty well informed, pretty well served even though it wasn't 24/7. Today I can watch three hours of Network and CNN news and miss 90% of what's really going on, what is truly important and newsworthy Shoot me, I simply don't trust Wolf Blitzer the way I did Walter Cronkite. Do you?

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Mainstream Extremism

Yet another, albeit awkward and tentative, move away from conflict in the Holy Land. My parents witnessed the historic 1947 UN Partition vote and later celebrated with soon to be leaders of the fledgling State. Their recounting of both events the next morning are among my most vivid childhood memories. My father had become a Zionist in 1917 when it was far from fashionable. From the start, so much hope, so much fear. Now, more than half a century later, the only change is that the fear seems greater than the hope. Painful.

The problems between Israel and the Palestinians are extraordinarily complex, but I tell myself, perhaps unrealistically, not insurmountable. More than any other obstacle to peace, more even than what to do with Jerusalem and the Refugees, is the reality that both sides are captives of extremists. Both give in to them. What makes a solution so difficult is that Arab and Jewish extremists (supported not so incidentally by American Christian fundamentalists) share a undeniable bond of commonality. Neither wants the other to stay on "their" land. What's more, both will use violent means to reach their goal, though admittedly not the same violent means. To most of us, certainly to those who consider ourselves political or religious Liberals, these are alien forces. They have nothing to do with us.

But is that really true? What's interesting about today's extremists is that they are largely from the Right, not the Left. A large percentage of them espouse the most Conservative form of their religion, a position that extends to societal issues. Whatever the nature of the government under which they live, philosophically they are not democrats. Quite the contrary, they have little patience for what the majority may want, since they see themselves as the embodiment of a higher order, the ultimate word, in possession of the single "Truth." This effects us directly because it is having a profound impact upon the global body politic.

Look at Israel and equally at our United States. The extreme fringe caused a hard pull to the Right producing the ultra-conservative Likud that, in comparison, operates under a cloak of "moderation." The same can be said for us. The ruling Republican Party is not that of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Olympia Snow, but of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and Tom DeLay. To be sure these Conservatives are not terrorists, but they are certainly belligerent, often a belligerence that turns to violence of enormous consequences. With "right" (think about the double meaning of that word) on their side, they barrel ahead with their agenda, broaching no criticism and using whatever means may be required to meet their ends.

The Bush agenda for America is not merely out of a Conservative songbook, but out of the extreme. And it's an agenda that is being carried forward by a deft use of underlying uneasiness or dissatisfaction as a cover-up for action. As victims of terror, albeit limited compared with other parts of the world, Americans live in fear. That's real and a great smokescreen for John Ashcroft's draconian administration of "Justice." A very rare and wrenching medical procedure is given a politicized name and is used to undermine a woman's right to choose. This list goes on, but the reality is clear, extremism is going mainstream while those who should be exposing it are sitting around timidly shaking their heads but keeping their mouths shut. That may change at some point, better late than never. The question for our lives is, will it be too late? Will extremism and mainstream be the same?

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Bring Back The French Fries

Why is it that the word hypocrisy comes to mind so often these days? OK you don't much like the French and you still suspect their motives. But let's look at the record, not at the spin. Before we went to war in Iraq, Secretary Powell unashamedly appeared before the world at the UN to make his case about the threat of WMD's. Yes Saddam Hussein was a bad and brutal guy, but that wasn't our primary reason for action. How could it have been given the large number of equally bad guys around the world whom we regularly ignore? No, we had to take immediate action because of the clear and present danger of Iraq's WMD's. We had non-compliance with a UN resolution. The French Foreign Minister responded. He never questioned Saddam's evil character, he did however question the existence of the alleged WMD's as did the UN Inspectors on the ground. You probably remember he received unprecedented applause from the many diplomats observing the session.

So here we are. I watched the articulate and still attractive Tony Blair fend of questions before Parliament yesterday. Wonder how George W would fair in such an open forum? Blair is adamant both about the WMD's and not having cooked the books of the intelligence community. The British are focusing on those 45 minutes and I couldn't help but think of Rosemary Woods. Blair's leadership and, more importantly, reputation are on the line. Don Rumsfeld, doesn't have the Blair problem. He dismissively says may never find these alleged WMD's and should "get a life." With a silent Congress, the Bush Administration simply changes the subject, talking only about how wonderful it is that the bad guy is gone. So it is, but that doesn't change the fact — WMD's are why they told us that we had to risk the lives of our children and thousands of Iraqi civilians. Tom Friedman, says we shouldn't have been talking WMD's in the first place, that Saddam's cruel regime was enough reason to go, so we should "get a life." Well that's not the point. "Should have" is not the issue. Manipulating the world and all of us in the "Homeland" is.

Our Administration now suggests that the weapons have either been destroyed or remain hidden. Perhaps we'll never know which. Thoughts of Watergate again, perhaps we'll never uncover Deep Throat. I have just one simple question. If these WMD's were such a present and immanent threat and if Saddam knew we would fight to his end (which he most assuredly did), why didn't he use them against us in battle? Wasn't that what they were for? Why didn't he lob dirty missiles over to Israel, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait? Why didn't his Guard gas our troops? He certainly wasn't protecting his humanitarian reputation. Perhaps there were indeed no WMD's, only a the myth of them to prolong his power and justify the deteriorating quality of life in his beleaguered country.

In light of the facts at hand, isn't our finger pointing at the French a bit disingenuous? Perhaps they had ulterior motives, but the questions they had the temerity to ask of Emperor George were valid then and remain unanswered. I wish more of our own Senators and Representatives had been equally challenging. Perhaps Powell's erroneous claims reflect honest failure on the part of our intelligence. Perhaps he and the entire Bush Administration were knowingly extrapolating fact out of fiction. We may never know. Clearly the jury is still out and it will be fascinating to see the outcome of the CIA's internal review in that regard and what action follows.

The other day a huge gas guzzling Cadillac SUV pulled up in front of my building. It had a flag with a patriotic slogan on its rear bumper. If that wasn't a sufficient show of colors, it also had a big flag on its side window and other even bigger one on the passenger side dash. Wow. I couldn't help rewriting the slogan on that back bumper in my mind. It would have been far more honest and accurate to say,: "go baby, keep the oil flowing." We claim the United States didn't go into Iraq for oil, but we quickly secured the oil fields while letting the treasures of our mutual civilization fly out the museum doors and archeological digs under our noses. We secured the oil fields while the hospitals were stripped of their bandages and medicines. And what is most disturbing, is that both our press and politicians continue to give these people a pass. Yes many of these things are reported, but for the most the focus on how wonderful it is to have that terrible dictator out of power. So it is, but what were our real reasons for instituting regime change?

At this very moment in Iraq anarchy continues and basic necessities are scarce, while good and loyal Administration friends are lining up for contacts. This is truly the coalition of the willing. The boys from the Oil Patch are on the move and, while George Bush may not always know how world leaders stand or feel about him, he sure can count on these people. Make no mistake about it, they will prosper regardless. As for me, I'll stop drinking French Wine, when the patriotic Hummer owners stop using the oil of dictatorships, stop winking at the deeds of these "needed" suppliers, and stop calling them allies. I guess it won't be necessary to abandon my wine rack any time soon. And as for those cholesterol laden French Fries, don't tell the President, but most Americans won't give them up either, not even their name.