Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Road Back

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of my adult life thinking how great it would be to make a cross country car journey; paying lip service to the idea but never quite thinking it would happen.  Now, I’ve made the trip twice in a nine month period – from the East Coast to California with Rachel and back again (joined this time by her husband and my son Jesse) arriving in Chapel Hill where they live a week later.  I wrote about the first leg back in September and in spirit of the late Charles Kuralt (himself a North Carolinian), here is The Road Back.

If you make no other trip to a National Park, do take in Yosemite.  I was stunned by the Grand Canyon going out, but absolutely blown away by Yosemite.  We also landed there at the very best time of the year when the winter snows were well into melt and the water comes rushing down mountains in pencil thin (though obviously much thicker)falls in every direction flowing into torrential rapids of the streams below.  The difference between The Canyon and Yosemite is that the roads running up and down through the latter bring you up close and personal – you can get soaked by the rushing falls and literally bend over and touch the fast running streams.  The only downside to this early season wonder is that the main cut through road was still impassable and we had to backtrack four hours to resume our drive east. 

I’ve never been to Las Vegas before or now (not accidental) but Nevada, where so many go to gamble, is above everything else a place of beauty.  We drove off I-80 up into the mountains still snow covered where we again encountered melt and, while no where as dramatic as Yosemite, fast moving streams.  Back on the Interstate we headed toward Salt Lake.  It’s a long stretch and if you ever drive it make sure to fill the tank, you won’t find many service stations along the way.  We have all crossed a lot of state lines in our time and, aside from the “you are leaving” or “welcome to” signs it usually takes some time (if ever) to notice any appreciable difference between where you’ve been and where you are.  Not so the cross on I-80 from Nevada to Utah.  Within an instant the terrain changes dramatically and you are engulfed by a wide expanse of whiteness (crystallized salt) on either side of the road.  If you had any doubt that you were headed toward the Great Salt Lake, it is quickly and decisively dispelled.  Aside from passing by the massive Mormon Temple, we didn’t spend much time in the city – this was largely and purposefully a countryside trip.  We did, however, have one of the best Mexican meals ever (Jesse had eaten in this seemingly unpretentious eatery after giving a lecture at the University some months back).  Very hot, very spectacular Mole.

Utah is a place of unbelievable beauty.  Having limited time, we had to be selective, but were not disappointed with our choices.  After staying overnight in Green River, we drove into The Arches some 30 minutes away.  This is a huge National Park with miles of road that take you to countless rock mountain formations characterized by arch like spaces that cutting through, some above ground and others through which you can easily walk.  It was a hot day and at considerable altitude even being in what I thought was excellent shape going up a modest hill made me feel much like a couch potato unused to exerting even the slightest physical effort.  It was probably the first time I didn’t feel that the AARP membership card tucked in my wallet was out of place.  We drove down the road from there (a very long road) to yet another National Park, Canyon Lands.  This place claims to be an accessible Grand Canyon, and perhaps more beautiful.  Being very height sensitive (a gross understatement), I certainly found it much less foreboding and very beautiful indeed though in a totally different way than the Grand whose very scale is so overwhelming and unforgettable.

As if we hadn’t seen enough, we headed further east toward Denver and up to Boulder for the night.  In the early morning we drove north into the Rockies (which if you haven’t experienced them are very rocky).  This is totally different terrain than Yosemite or the Utah hills, but no less breathtaking.  Again rushing streams enhanced by melt off though at an earlier seasonal stage than what we had seen before.  We didn’t have time for a walk through but the drive through yet another National Park gave us a very good sense of the place.  From there we headed south toward Amarillo and I-40 the route Rachel and I had taken out and about which I wrote last September.

This is a magnificent country with great open spaces and a National Park System which reminds one that there were conservation-minded leaders who held sway in our historic past.  I haven’t been to Alaska (yet), but can tell you without seeing the place that even contemplating violating a National Park to drill for oil is an unpatriotic act by definition.  This of course brings me to the talk of the day: oil.  We thought gasoline was expensive in September; it’s significantly more so now.  Of course, once again the cheapest pump price was in Texas; though only a tad lower than in adjoining states.  It does make you wonder why a gallon of Exxon Regular can be $2.46 in Amarillo and well over 3 bucks in the New York area.  I know that the taxes are different and perhaps it takes a little longer to get from source to point of use, but give me a break.  It would seem that the geo-political conditions affecting oil prices are the same every where.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge my fellow-citizens out West the lower prices, but I do feel more than uneasy about the spectacular profiteering of the oil barons.

The bottom line of this round trip?  It is great to get away, see the country and find respite, albeit for a brief moment, from the sorry political and social state of our world and county.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Front Runners Sliding Back

"What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.  The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked.  And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad.  I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen’."  These were the broadcast words of Rev. Jerry Falwell in conversation with talk show host Pat Robertson just days after September 11, 2001.  While later seeking to amend his remarks, few long term Falwell observers had any doubt that his astounding words represented exactly how he felt and have long been emblematic of his radical philosophy.  Whether one agrees with him or not (and I certainly don’t), Jerry Falwell, is consistent.

And it was exactly a perceived lack of consistency on his part that so unnerved many admirers of “straight talking” John McCain when he agreed to give the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty College.  After all McCain had been the victim of the clergyman’s venom and smearing during the 2000 Presidential Primary.  The anger about McCain’s purported pandering is what caused so much rancor during his appearance at the New School last week, though the content of the protest was focused, probably rightly so, on the Senator’s continuing pro-Iraq War stand and his pandering support of George Bush.  I doubt that McCain’s reception in New York would have been so hostile if not for the Liberty appearance.  What’s lost in all of this is that candor aside, there isn’t that much light separating McCain, Bush and for that matter Jerry Falwell.  Indeed apart from Falwell’s demagogic apocalyptic rhetoric and Bush’s mendacity, you would be hard pressed to identify any major philosophical policy difference between them.  McCain has been a solid supporter of the Iraq misadventure from its inception until this day.  Perhaps he wouldn’t express it in quite the same way as Falwell did on abortion – “destroying 40 million innocent babies”, but he is firmly anti-choice.  While opposing a Constitutional Amendment on Gay Marriage, he does so only in the name of State’s Rights and indeed lent his full support last year for a restrictive marriage amendment proposed for Arizona.

John McCain isn’t tilting conservative in an effort to win the Republican nomination, he has always been conservative and would more than likely pursue an equally conservative agenda if elected president.  If the Right has any problem with him, it is that he can be unpredictable, a perceived lose cannon.  Nevertheless, he was a consistently strong supporter of Bush’s judicial appointments and there is no reason to believe a President McCain would pick differently.  McCain’s straight talk is admirable and at times refreshing in comparison with the usual Washington-Speak.  If you’ve seen him field questions after a talk, you can’t help but be impressed by his people skills.  But having a real shot at the GOP nomination this time, is forcing him to reveal more clearly who he is and that’s the real straight talk.  The electorate will have to decide if they want more of what has so derailed our democracy and reputation in the last five years, albeit packaged somewhat differently.  That’s true with McCain as it will be with any potential Republican standard bearer on the horizon.

And all this talk of pandering brings me sadly to Hilary Clinton.  Is she, or isn’t she?  In the final analyses, Senator Clinton’s so-called tilt toward the right is really no more surprising than McCain’s supposed turn toward doctrinaire conservatism.  The fact is that the Clintons, both Bill and Hilary, built their New Democrat political careers on tilting to the right.  While not abandoning social progressivism, the President won office on the strength of appealing to and building a moderate center which included fiscal conservatism (much more so than the tax cut and spend Republicans), welfare reform (decimation) and a pretty aggressive military stand which included massive bombing of Iraq.  Hilary supported the war there and still does (though she is critical of the execution) because her husband’s administration was also obsessed with Saddam and WMDs(even if they would have stopped short of going to war with a paltry “coalition of the willing” and without UN approval).  I’ve said before that, while feeling that she is effective Senator, Hilary is not my candidate for President, even if what I think may not matter.  The fact is that she doesn’t believe a Democrat can win without keeping somewhat to the center.  It worked for Bill and why shouldn’t it for her?  Clinton of course is pro-choice though she has been making noises about a middle ground there as well.  Expect more nuanced positions in the months ahead and don’t read them as anything but the real Hilary. 

Bottom line: John McCain is exactly who he always was, a true blue conservative, and Hilary Clinton is who she has always been a safe political moderate.  Will either of them lead us out of our present morass?  I don’t think so, and that’s the trouble with both of them.  I’m still looking for a fresh face and until someone comes up with a better choice Obama remains at the top of my list.  The country needs new thinking and its only chance for the future in this highly competitive world is a leader who comes to office without baggage, without having to explain his or her past actions and support for the unsupportable.  Putting old policies in new cloths – a kind of Democratic neo-Republicanism – won’t work.  Nor will “againstism” – been there, failed at that.  We’re all looking for someone who can tell us what they are for and what specifically they will do to right the ship of state.  New faces and a new agenda, not more of the tried and untrue.

Monday, May 8, 2006

9/11 Untouchables

Mayor Michel Bloomberg, who has some personal knowledge of what $1Billion really means, thinks it’s too much to spend on a memorial to the World Trade Center fallen.  Intimacy with $1 Billion is way above my pay grade, but I not only think it’s too much, I’m appalled by it.  Now don’t get me wrong I feel deeply for those 3,000 innocent victims of 9/11 and for their families, collectively and individually.  Having officiated at hundreds of funerals while an active rabbi, I understand what a death in the family means, even when it comes to one naturally in the “fullness of years”.  That said, there is something about both what seems a disproportionate tribute and our attitude to the families that doesn’t sit well with me.  Without question they played a critical role in shaming the President and Congress to get the 9/11 Commission off the ground, and more importantly give it teeth and a sense of urgency.  Whether that effort ultimately has made any difference in our preparedness or security remains in doubt, but at least it took place.  At the same time, restoring the Trade Center property (I hate the term Ground Zero which seems so crassly made for television), has been stymied leaving a wound in the city’s landscape and along with it a reminder that we remain in some significant way impotent in the face of disaster.  Dealing with the families, taking care not to offend or turn them against us, is like walking on eggs and the only analogy that I can think of is how we treat the Cuban Exiles in Miami.

For reasons beyond rational comprehension, this particular group of immigrants has been canonized in America.  For more than 40 years they have held our foreign policy hostage (much as did Formosa in thwarting our recognition of the real China for decades after World War II).  We lionize these Batista Cubans somehow pretending that their government was a bastion of democracy, which is absolutely the opposite of what it was.  Batista was a dictator and a two-bit corrupt dictator at that.  He was in bed with the Mafia and on the take from American business interests both of whom helped him exploit an impoverished population.  Of course, he was our dictator so we coddle these people fearing that crossing them will cost us the Florida vote.  Not far below the surface is a continued sense of guilt that the greatest power on earth couldn’t help those ragtag exiles make it at the Bay of Pigs.  It’s a guilt that hangs over our psyche like a clichéd Jewish mother.

Of course, the 9/11 families are not the same as the Cubans, but they have put us (or we have put ourselves) in a similar position, especially the guilt part.  Just as the Cubans have short circuited every effort to engage with Castro, they held the rebuilding downtown hostage claiming the potential desecration of hallowed ground.  If the Israeli’s did the same thing there would be lots of empty spaces in their cities and towns.  Perhaps it would be good for us to stop a moment and put their terrible tragedy in context.  In 2001, as in many of the years before and after, approximately 16,000 Americans (including children) lost their lives to violence.  Perhaps murderers aren’t exactly the same kind of terrorists as those guys who used airplanes as WMDs, but I don’t think the mother of a child shot in drive-by in a neighborhood terrorized by gangs would make that fine distinction.  There is no accurate count of how many innocent Afghani civilians lost their lives when we retaliated for 9/11, but if you hold to the Biblical “eye for an eye” injunction (which I don’t), things probably got evened out pretty quickly.  Deaths of the innocent here or there were no less or more horrendous or painful.  We don’t know anything about the surviving families in Afghanistan, but you can be sure they don’t have nearly the stroke of the victim’s families here; read that no stroke at all.  The fact that they are nameless and faceless, statistical survivors of statistical fatalities, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist as individuals and that they don’t feel equal pain.

Even more germane to the 9/11 victims and their families, are the innocent civilians who have lost their lives in Iraq, long suggested by the Bush Administration as related to 9/11 literally or by innuendo.  Again, we don’t have a real headcount (many of these people had unlisted identities not merely unlisted telephone numbers), but at least there are some guesstimates – 100,000 is the widely accepted undercount.  However devastating the loss of the 9/11 families, even understanding that most will never fully recover, contrast in your mind for a moment their lives with those who lost loved ones in Iraq.  In the first place the 9/11 families received financial compensation (meted out in proportion to their lost one’s economic worth which is a bit weird, but not the subject of this writing).  The rest of us (the community survivors) along with them have hardly missed a beat in getting on with our lives.  I agree with those who suggest that a principal reason few of us are protesting in the streets today is that Americans have yet to experience the smallest sacrifice for the war.  We are overwhelmed instead by blissful normalcy.  We shop, eat 3 square, watch TV, engage in our usual well lit, cooled or warmed household activities, send the kids off to school with no more than a parent’s normal degree of paranoia and, if we’re lucky to be in the right bracket have even experienced a generous tax break to reward us one must assume for having to endure any bad or disruptive thoughts that might take away from our entitlement.  We all know the Iraqi citizen’s experience contrasts sharply from that.  Their world really has changed.

If we are engaged in a war against terrorism because we owe it to the victims of 9/11 or their families, we are in it for the wrong reason.  At the very least we are being disingenuous about it.  We are in it for our own survival and with it our way of life.  I don’t happen to buy into the, again made for TV and political expediency “war on terrorism”, but there is little doubt that we are engaged in a long term struggle with vicious terrorists.  If we are securing our country against attack (and the jury is still out on whether we have done that), then again we are not doing that for the fallen on 9/11 or for their grieving survivors, but for ourselves and for our loved ones.  We are doing it to secure our future, not to remember the past.

I am certainly not opposed to erecting a memorial at the Trade Center site, in Washington or anywhere else.  I also recognize that people seem to find great comfort in physical places of memory.  That reality is demonstrated every time I enter Central Park at 72nd Street and see flowers strewn over the “Imagine” circle remembering John Lennon.  Not letting go of memory is not such a bad thing, especially if we use it to learn from, to grow from.  But will we remember the 9/11 victims any less if we spend a fraction of $1 Billion in marking the spot of their demise?  I don’t think so.  Would a simple garden with a plaque be any less visited?  Of course not.  All the memorials put together (some of them in striking spaces) for the Six Million didn’t cost any where near that amount.  While I tried to get into the Holocaust Museum in DC once (it was so crowded that they weren’t letting anyone else in), I’ve yet to visit a single one.  Do I remember the Six Million any less?  Absolutely not.  What happened to them will forever inform my life, where I’m headed and how I get there – not where we were but who we are as a result of it.

It fits into the play book of shameless politicians to use 9/11 for their own electoral advantage.  They contend repeatedly ad nauseam that it has changed our world.  Perhaps it has.  But isn’t it time we get on with the changing which includes investing our money wisely in the future rather than in selectively building bloated monuments to the past hoping that they will avert our eyes from the realities of the present and the challenges ahead?

Friday, May 5, 2006


Full disclosure. I don’t believe in the death penalty either as a deterrent, or as it is meted out, a fail safe dispatch of justice.  Even if I did, however, the Moussaoui case always puzzled me.  Here is a man who was clearly in the orbit of some very bad people and ideas, who along with them harbors a disdain for most of us, who may have known about the potential use of planes as weapons (as, let’s remember, did the FBI and CIA), but who in fact committed no illegal act.  He was in US custody on 9/11.  According to press reports there is some reason to believe that he puffed up his own importance (including how much he really did know about the 9/11 venture), and in doing so found a most willing audience in a Justice Department determined to prove its own take on things.  He was a near perfect and compliant poster boy for retribution, even if his own culpability remains in question.  This is all the more disturbing since we’re told Justice is holding three much more credible culprits whom they may not be able to bring forward without being incriminated themselves for “aggressive interrogation” not to mention having thereby polluted the probative value of any evidence they might have received in the effort.

I find the jury’s verdict most encouraging, but perhaps not for the reason you might think.  For sure, as expressed in Times and elsewhere, it is a vindication of our Justice system.  In that, it contrasts from the mock juris prudence often encountered elsewhere in the world, including in many Moslem dictatorships.  But that’s really not what gives me hope.  Over the years I’ve witnessed numerous periods of excess in which, often playing off synthetically created public hysteria, people in power stretched the envelope of authority so far that it threatened our cherished way of life and mores.  I was in high school when Joseph McCarthy abused the power of his office literally ruining the lives of countless citizens, among them a host of intellectuals and artists.  I later watched Lyndon Johnson tear the country apart in the name of protecting the world from Communism during his misadventure in Viet Nam, and then Richard Nixon who was, contrary to his own disclaimer, indeed a crook who almost robbed us of democracy.  Like others I sometimes feel those presently in power are intent on surpassing all of these, thinking that if they can only couch it is the right words and slogans, we lemmings will follow, no questions asked.  As a result these may well be the worst of times, at least the worst I have seen.

Clearly the present has yet to play out, and more anguish may well come before it ends.  Nonetheless, if history is any lesson at all the American people, despite their limitations and seeming naiveté, always reach a point of awakening, a tipping point when they are aroused out of their sleepy lethargy, a moment when they say “enough”.  It is frustrating to watch the painfully slow process –the time when the vox populi move from culpable co-conspirators in their silence to being mad enough not to take it any more.  But somehow they do get aroused.  Bush’s daily declining poll numbers suggest it is finally happening, but in my mind the decision in Alexandria Virginia may well be the metaphoric turning point.  The tide is not merely turning, it has turned.

What has been so exasperating in these dark years has not been so much the misguided policies of this inept and narrowly ideological administration in and of themselves, but their total disregard for everything that makes the United States great.  Our history has definitely not been without fault and we’ve lost our way at times in the name of self interest from the moment we became powerful enough to push others around.  That said, until now we’ve consistently been seen as a beacon of light, a bastion of freedom even if over generously so.  What has saved the nation from the worst that is within us (and particularly in those who govern us) are the people.  When the people are in control, as they are in the jury room, very good things can happen.  In saying that I don’t want to gloss over the ugliness of the mob that, among others, subverted the rights of Black America, still disdains people who hang on to their immigrant culture and language or that terrorizes gays whom they characterize as deviants.  But when the people are blocked from participation, watch out.  Things done in secret places, away from the light of day, can become ugly, if not outright evil.  Keeping the people out of the process produced Abu Ghraib, letting the people in produced the verdict of Alexandria.  It is only the beginning.  The genie is out of the bottle now and much as they may try, Bush and company won’t be able to put it back in.

What we know, what we think and what we say may be very offensive and abhorrent.  It’s only what we do, especially when it invades the space of our neighbor, that counts.  The rebelling jurors in Virginia understood that, and in time so too will we all including those still grieving families.  They too may come to see this verdict as a path to ending the most insidious self inflicted excesses of our current nightmare.