Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Tsunami Year

A tragically appropriate horrific ending to a horrendous year.  I'm trying hard to think about what good happened in 2004, and must confess to be at a loss.   To be sure, whatever humanly devised disasters, and there were many, everything including the high casualty levels of conflict, pales in comparison to the havoc and devastation that, without warning, befell hundreds of thousands innocents in a matter of minutes across eleven countries on the Indian Sea.   The numbers of dead and displaced are the kind one can't really comprehend or personalize.  The coincident death of Susan Sontag, an individual whose loss we can define and appreciate, reminds us how precious each individual life is, how much the absence of a single human being can mean.  So, too, the nearly 1400 American young men and women who have given their lives in Iraq, another 17 of whose heart wrenching photos were shown this evening on the PBS News Hour – precious individuals leaving behind identifiable grieving mothers, fathers, wives and children in our neighborhoods.   But the victims of the Tsunami are not the only unknown.  Equally anonymous and uncounted are the Iraqi, Afghani or other victims of that pathetic euphemism called "collateral damage."   Be assured someone, if not us, knows their number and mourns their loss as do the survivors of this week's disaster.

It took our President three days to interrupt his Crawford vacation long enough to make a public statement on the Tsunami tragedy.  One can't imagine Bill Clinton having waited three hours.  It reminds me of Bush's delayed reaction to the 9/11 attack so quickly forgotten and forgiven by those who didn't want to think that their President could be absent for so many hours in its aftermath.  It's funny how much more spontaneous human empathy we got from the morally discredited Clinton than from the sanctimoniously faith-imbued Bush who is so obsessed with the right to life of the unborn, but who has no problem with putting the already born (including potential victims of assault weapons) in harm's way.

If you find these words bitter, they merely reflect the total frustration of many of us who can't understand how so many of our fellow citizens were taken in by the shell game that constituted the November election.  A majority of those people believed to the end that Saddam played a key role in 9/11, a myth that the President and his associates saw no reason to correct even if they knew better.  It served their purposes, helped keep them in power.   Now we look ahead to four more years, to that unspent political capital and what it might mean in the context of an ultra-right political agenda.  Meanwhile, even without this most recent natural catastrophe, we find ourselves at great peril, far less safe, with no end in sight -- no light much less sense of an ending tunnel.   Our standing in the world remains diminished and, as Tom Friedman of the Times and others point out, we are concurrently losing our edge in science and technology.   We can borrow billions to wage war, but are spending far less that is necessary on educating our young.  We've crossed the bridge to the 21st Century and half the schools in the country are talking about teaching Creationism along with, or in the place of, Darwinism, the former being proven fact the latter a mere theory.   We've crossed the bridge, but seem to be traveling back toward the dark past not forward to the promise of the future.  I'm normally an optimist, but the realist within me sees no silver lining in that, no quick happy Hollywood ending.  We have a lot of work to do in changing the course of this train that's left the station on its way to the wrong destination.   We better get on with it, without delay.  Where are those damned breaks?

Friday, December 24, 2004

What Kind of Country?

It is Christmas Day.  For the majority of Americans it is a holiday, for some of them a holy day.  For the rest of us – Jews, Moslems, Hindus and others – it is a moment of some ambivalence, a time when we are reminded of our minority status.  We are asked to participate in the holiday spirit and are engulfed in its decorations, music and symbols.  There is festiveness in the air, but beneath the surface a palpable tension.  That is particularly true this year.  Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a series of local controversies and heated debates surrounding public school and place holiday observances and programming.  Not that we haven't experienced this before – similar discussions took place when I was a child a long time ago.  What's different this year is the tone and a new aggressiveness about bringing Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ – back into a holiday that has been increasingly secularized and thus religiously neutered. 

One of the most unattractive aspects of our time, as my elder son keeps reminding me, is that no one wants to take responsibility any more.  To be sure, Christmas has lost some of its religious edge because of what the complainers see as political correctness -- not wanting to offend, wanting to be inclusive.  But Christmas become secularized many decades before "correctness" even entered our vocabulary.  It has long been taken over as a commercial event, the make or break time for retailers whose fiscal year ends in January so that they can book its sales.  It is a Christmas focused on unbridled gift buying rather than remembrance of Virgin Birth.  The broadest possible inclusion in this frenzy and the resultant holiday neutralization has long been tacitly condoned by people of faith including Churches who in all honesty are driven as much, often more, by economic considerations than by prayer and piety.  Christmas' meaning has been pragmatically hijacked by the almighty dollar not by political correctness and that is sad.   Restoring the meaning of Christmas would be good for everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike.  

But there is something in this year's debate which is not good for all of us.  For the first time, I hear an increasing number of people voicing anger about the neutering of Christmas with the argument that this is a "Christian country."   To be sure, Christianity remains the dominant religion in America, though other religions have been gaining ground.  Only the blind can deny the reality of that dominance, symbolized by a National Christmas Tree and the annual television tour through the decorated people's White House.  Even so, I think of ours as a secular democracy, my place as well as yours, yours as well as mine.  Christians should be proud of their faith, should feel embraced by all in their right to celebrate and to be discomfited by the replacement of Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays.  But not because we live in a Christian country, rather that we live in one which welcomes and protects religion and the religious even as it welcomes secularism and the non-believer.

I have said many times in these blogs that a large number of Americans, including those in high places, see our current geopolitical struggles in religious terms.  We aren't fighting terrorism, we're battling Islam.  We're not defending our democracy, but in their view our Christian country and Christian way of life.  As an American and as a citizen of our small planet, I see that as a prescription for disaster.  As a Jew with a historic memory, I find such thinking ominous.   When people start using code words like correctness for un-Christian and thus un-American, there is good reason for people of all faiths and beliefs to be concerned.  For or against the current foreign policy, let's not forget what we're defending here.  Yes, let's not forget that we're defending the right of individuals in a pluralistic society to cherish their traditions and for our Christian fellow citizens to wish each other a Merry Christmas with all of its meaning and pride.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Dreams, Why Not?

Philip Roth and I both grew up in Newark. We lived in adjacent neighborhoods, went to the same high school and share many childhood memories and sign posts. If you've read his latest Newark-based novel, The Plot Against America, you know that my father is one of the historic characters woven into his fictional fantasy. It's a provocative "it could happen here" story and, as usual, written in the compelling style. I recommend it. Roth is obviously a dreamer, in this case, subject to nightmares. Perhaps the dreaming part is in the air, because I find myself drifting into that real/unreal world myself. Unlike Roth, however, my dreams are not nightmares but happy fantasies.

My dream also concerns the outcome of a Presidential election. As his, which was built on the reality of the pro-Hitler America First movement in early 1940s, mine centers on the reality of an expected Ohio recount. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, in my dream when all the votes are reviewed Kerry is the winner of Ohio, reversing the results of the November election. Now had we not lived through the bizarre events of 2000, I would totally discount this dream, certainly I wouldn't write about it. But, hey, if fellow ex-Newarker Philip Roth can bring Lindbergh who never ran into the White House, why can't I bring in John Kerry, who did? Humor me.

Can you imagine Christmas in Crawford, in Wyoming or in any of the well healed locations in which our, until then, self satisfied leaders find themselves? Think about Condi suddenly planning a return to California rather than a daily drive to the State Department. Think about a new Secretary of Defense who might actually take some responsibility of mucking up rather than streamlining our military or who might get some blame for an Abu Ghraib on his watch. You can fill in your own fantasies. I must say, just contemplating what such a turn around might mean to these people who have so arrogantly taken us to the brink is more delicious than eating an exquisite piece of "Old Europe" dark chocolate. And don't say it couldn't happen, at least don't say it absolutely couldn't happen. Not that it will.

Philip Roth's book is obviously a nightmarish excursion into what could have happened in the 1940, and thankfully didn't. My dream is sweet excursion into what I wish had happened a few weeks ago. His nightmare is fantasy (even though most people see it as a contemporary metaphor); my waking reality is the nightmare -- not what could have happened but what is happening. Roth's novel comes to a happy ending. I hope our reality will as well. Like Martin Luther King Jr., "I have a dream that someday…" Let's resolve to make sure that is a day certain, one not too long delayed.

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Eye for Eye Insufficiency

Over the past weekend C-Span broadcast a New American Foundation/NYU Law Center forum on Trans-National Terrorism after 9/11.  It was a provocative and thoughtful discussion involving highly credentialed academic and professional experts.  Most questioned both our success in combating terrorism and the underlying assumptions under which we are conducting this so-called "war".  Force, many said, simply is not a solution, certainly not in the long term.  I've always felt that way citing the abysmal failure of Israel's futile use of often overwhelming military power to end the Intifada. Corroborating their views, President Musharraf of Pakistan expressed similar thoughts talking to both the BBC and CNN in which he admitted that, in hindsight, the Iraq war was ill-conceived and that the world is less safe in its aftermath.  As to the war on terrorism, the General, who knows something about these things, suggested that the use of force had only a short term tactical merit.  Long term, the solution to terrorism requires addressing the substantial underlying political and social problems or conflicts that produce it. 

Watching the Foundation/Law Center discussion, I found myself engrossed in their discussion but mostly depressed by the thought that this kind of conversation is unlikely to have taken place in or around the White House.  In an administration that seems bent on corroborating predetermined absolute truths and assumptions rather than exploring possibilities and options, open discourse is obviously unwelcome, much less any notion of the course correction that it might suggest.  While the number of cabinet posts being reshuffled is historically pretty consistent with other second terms, the obvious message of the replacement appointments is clear.  No contrary views welcome here, no dissonant notes in this one-dimensional "patriotic" hymn.  The firmness of this ill conceived resolve is only underscored by the one major cabinet post that will not change.  Donald Rumsfeld and company who, regardless of one's position on the war, botched things up big time has been asked to stay.  If you have any lingering doubts about George Bush's inability to admit mistakes, I rest my case.

In all fairness, however, perhaps Musharraf's critique was a little too harsh.  After all, Bush does have a long term vision - bring democracy to all those countries.  It is prejudicial, he suggested the other day, to think that Moslem countries could not sustain democracies.  I agree that it is, but as usual, the President's words constitute more sound byte simplistic hype than a reflection of reality on the ground.  As an investigative Aljazeera reporter reminded those at the forum, more than 50% of the Arab population is illiterate; not merely poorly educated, but unable to read or write.  No wonder authoritarian regimes hold sway across the region.  How can people vote intelligently, or even have the power to do so, when they are so handicapped.  Think about this tidbit from Richard Dawkins' interview with Bill Moyers on his PBS Now program.  A significant majority of Americans who voted for George Bush believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, not that they might have existed and were somehow removed from the country, but were there.  If such disinformation can prevail among the educated, albeit not up the standards we would like, how can one expect real democracy, which includes informed voting, to take hold in countries of rampant illiteracy?  If we don't begin to address these problems, terrorism is likely to be at our doorstep for many decades to come.  At the very least, we can expect more authoritarian governance, even if it functions under Egyptian-style charade democracies.

Are we safer today than we were a year ago, or perhaps even months ago? Ask the bi-partisan congressional delegation that just returned from Iraq, a follow-up on a similar visit made last year.  Senator Lincoln Chafe, a Republican, confirmed what John Kerry and others said throughout the campaign.  Things in Iraq have deteriorated dramatically despite the presence of over 100,000 US troops.  The delegation simply couldn't visit the same places this time around and even their modest ten kilometer trip from the airport was hazardous as they passed through land that is essentially under insurgent control (as is much of Baghdad and other places around the country).  More troops are on the way, and more who should be leaving will be staying around.  But this show of strength can't mask the fact that, these many months after the war of liberation, Iraqis are not really in charge of their own destiny, have less personal security and a substantially diminished quality of life than before it started.  Is it any wonder that their Intifada is growing along with this reality?  The idea of efficacious "an eye for an eye" coupled with a "see no lack of progress, hear no alternative view" is placing us and the world in greater danger every day.  It's hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, even harder to imagine new thinking in a now monolithic Washington imbued with mandate and the rightness of their ideas, both large and small.

Post Script: My last blog, a spontaneous reaction to increased prescription drug advertising, appears to have been more timely than I thought.  Suddenly the airwaves are filled with similarly expressed concerns.  Obviously others, far more influential voices, are getting into this and none too soon.  More power to them.