Sunday, January 30, 2005

Back to What's Important

Forget Iraq.   The vote went well, and it no longer requires our attention.  Forget Social Security.  Lot's of complicated numbers.  Boring!  Health Care for everyone.  I have mine, why should I be interested in that?  Starvation, AIDS and Malaria in Africa.  Isn't that Tsunami stuff under control?  That happened in Africa didn't it?  No forget all this peripheral stuff, we've got a trial to watch – the "Trial of the Century" (prescient title considering we're only 5 years in).  Michael Jackson, that's what I really want to know about.  That's what's important.

I was thinking of Frank Rich when I turned on the news early this morning.  What a relief, another of his Mediathons on its way.  Even BBC, my usual refuge from the narrow trivia found on Networks and Cable, failed me.  "The trial of Michael Jackson will begin this morning…" it told me.  Ugh.  If it weren't so infuriating, it would be funny.  Is this why we are bringing democracy to the unwashed so that they can bypass their miserable reality to follow months of Michael Jackson on CNN?  Perhaps my problem is that I've never listened to a complete Michael Jackson recording or seen more than a few moments of his famous videos, and thus don't comprehend his importance relative to those silly world events.  I know his sister bared a breast during the half-time show at last year's Super Bowl (which I also don't watch).  Was it the right or the left breast?  This is important isn't it?  I know it dominated the news for weeks last year and required decisive action by the FCC.

What is wrong with us?  To be sure there is no simple answer when facing a chicken and egg problem.  The media focuses on this beside-the-point, but millions watch it.   I don't really know who to blame.  One would hope that those keepers of our moral values in Washington would be pointing out that Michael Jackson's trial pales in comparison to the multitude of serious problems we face.  But perhaps they don't see this preoccupation with the irrelevant as so bad.  What better a time than to sneak through some further tightening of the Patriot Act, some further reduction in benefits to our beloved warriors and their food stamp using families (where did I put that yellow ribbon bumper sticker) or another denial of global warming (focus on the recent cold in New York, not the diminished ice caps at the poles).  Certainly we would expect some words of criticism of this irrelevance from the pulpits across America, but that might offend "viewers" sitting in the pews below.  Heaven forbid, let's not risk that.

I've been thinking a great deal about our situation these days.   One of the things that strikes me is that we have totally lost our sense of humor evidenced by, among others, this outburst.  Oh I know the Daily Show airs every night, but I'm talking about the official world.  Remember those photos and newsreel clips of FDR with his infectious smile; his "nothing to fear but fear…" in the darkest days of the Depression?  Remember those JFK press conferences filled with engaging dry humor directed both inwardly and outwardly?  You simply didn't want to miss a single word.  Gone.  Now we only shout and scowl or sanctimoniously invoke the Almighty as if our utterances were the sanctioned holy word.  And we devote our attention to important things.  Michael Jackson, thank your for being here when we need you most.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Election

We don't know what will happen with the election in Iraq tomorrow.  Even the most vociferous critics of this dreadful miscalculation and abuse of imagined power like myself, must hope that it goes well.   Thousands of innocent Iraqi lives have been lost.  Too many of our own young military men and women will either not return to their families or not return as they were.  Saddam was a brutal dictator and the idea of free self rule replacing tyranny should not be trivialized.  Whether the election will be seen as legitimate remains the big question and its answer is unlikely to be self evident.  For sure, only a portion of eligible voters will go to the polls (we Americans can relate to that), and whole constituencies have indicated that they won't participate at all.  Some votes will come from Iraqi never-to-return expatriates around the world, among them those who hold citizenship in their new countries.  How will that go down with the people so at risk on the ground?  The administration has consistently suggested that the election will be a turning point, the beginning of a new beginning for Iraq.  But that dog has barked before – falling statues, mission accomplished, capture of Saddam, routing of Felluga – all fantasy watersheds.

What does seem clear is that both the Administration and the American people hope this election, if not the beginning of the beginning for Iraqis, is the beginning of the end for us.  In that regard, I was struck by three unscientific online instant polls conducted today by MSNBC and CNN.   One asked if the election was an opportunity for us to exit, another if it would be successful and a third if it would bring democratic government to Iraq.  In each 65% or more of respondents weighed in on the side of either opportunity to exit or of expected failure.  Perhaps we haven't reached a Viet Nam like tipping point of fatigue but, in a world that is moving much faster than it did in the 1960s, we are getting pretty damn close. 

In today's column "The Bushies New Groove", David Brooks, the now singular conservatism op-ed voice at the New York Times, suggests that the administration is looking at things in a totally new way as they enter the second term.  If you believe a new policy direction run by very ideologues who created the old is credible, then you probably believed there was a New Nixon.  Remember what happened to that piece of mythology?   In any event, it's instructive to read the administration's planted views in the paper of record suggesting that focus will turn from the Middle East to the world including places like South America.   Now, aside from our pursuing the "evil doers", I don't remember the Bush people focusing much attention on real Middle East problems in the first term, certainly not on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which continues to be the most urgent and probably far reaching of them.  That aside, I guess Brooks' sources are using him to signal a revealing "we're going to get out of that town as soon as possible" message. Very interesting!  Almost as if they were in control of the situation.  Fat chance of that.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Where is today's Martin?

I picked up Martin Luther King Jr. at Newark Airport.  A twenties something assistant rabbi to my father in the last remaining liberal synagogue in town, we had invited him to address our Community Forum.  Like the city, the area where the huge oval shaped cathedral-like temple sat, had long since passed the tipping point in its case from being a white middleclass Jewish neighborhood to one largely inhabited by African Americans.  King delivered a version of his standard stump speech that evening.  In it were hints of the memorable March on Washington address to come when my father would again share the podium with him.  Even if the talk had been delivered elsewhere, it was nonetheless a memorable experience for the many assembled.  For me the striking moment of that day, was my earlier experience at the airport.

King was already pretty well known to the greater public, but at that time he had yet to achieve the iconic status that all Americans associate with him today.   Yet to achieve that is except with, as I learned walking alongside him through airport, his community.  I was stunned and totally unprepared for the reaction of the largely black personnel in the terminal.  King's arrival was treated with excitement combined with the reverence for an unquestioned superstar.  It was clear that many reports of the sighting, the contact, would regale family gatherings throughout the city that night.  Being involved in civil rights, I knew a lot about Martin King but not till that moment did I understand the power of his person.  It reminded me of a similar experience I had in college when a young John F. Kennedy was the unplanned but undeniable center of gravity in a program where Chief Justice Earl Warren was the principal speaker.

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today, I can't help but agonize about the fact that, despite the desperate times in which we live, his kind of voice is totally absent from the scene.  King was unique, but he typified a generation of mainstream religious leaders.  When the relationship with White America had achieved a kind of pathetic equilibrium largely accepted by the Black power structure, the well educated second generation minister of a traditional congregation, would have none of it.  King didn't invent the struggle nor was he its only or even primary leader, but he brought a new passion and took extraordinary risks when he could have had a comfortable and trouble-free pastorate and career.  The established churches were not thrilled when he began rocking their stable boats.  So, too, much to the consternation of fellow civil rights activists, did he step out in speaking against our involvement in Viet Nam.  He had every reason not to add that fight to his plate; every reason except for the moral imperative that ran rampant through the blood in his veins.  He died for his willingness to go against the grain.

During the past years we have witnessed continuing violence committed in the name of God.  We have seen our troops sent into a questionable battle in which many of lost their lives and countless more, due to severe injury, have permanently lost their way of life.   We have seen still uncalculated "collateral damage" obscured in the fog of war and we have been horrified by the horrendous humiliating abuses in Abu Ghraib and other prisons.  All this and not a King-like word or figure from the mainstream religious community.  To be sure, we've heard moral outrage from Michael Moore and from the likes of Rabbi Arthur Waskow on the Internet, but it's all at the fringe.  If a Martin Luther King and his like exists today, I don't know who he is or who they are.  Mainstreamers have turned inward when we need them to engage with larger societal problems, turned silent when we need them to talk.  I don't know if that will happen, but it's all I can think of on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2005.    

Monday, January 3, 2005

The Invisible Fifth Border

"As I look out the window on one side I see the mountains over Jordan.  I turn my head and I see the mountains at the southern tip of Israel, lurching into the Egyptian crossing at Taba.  Throughout this trip we have seen four foreign borders:  Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon."  So writes my good friend Clifford Kulwin, rabbi of the congregation where I served alongside my father for nearly a decade in the 1960s.  He and forty four of my fellow members visited Israel over the past two weeks and these comments were embedded in an email report about the trip.  What struck me was that even at this late date the idea of a fifth border, that of Palestine, did not play into the thinking of one whom I know is a strong advocate of peace between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. 

The news from the Middle East has been grim in these last years no more so than from Israel and the occupied territories.  The Intifada that broke out after the failure of the last peace efforts under Bill Clinton's sponsorship, and which has continued almost unabated since, has seen hundreds of lives lost, many innocents on both sides.  In the intervening time, there has been little hope for a solution which stands in such stark contrast with the day when Rabin and Arafat gingerly shook hands on the White House lawn.  But there does now seem to be some glimmer of light ahead of us.  Sharon's decision to start the withdrawal process from Gaza and the pending elections for new Palestinian leadership suggests at least the possibility.

But progress is also going to take new thinking and more aggressive, albeit sometimes cosmetic, supportive communications to accompany it.  The power of words should never be underestimated.  How we describe something effects not only how we think about it, but in the long run can impact on the outcome.  It seems to me that we must begin thinking about and articulating that fifth border.  We have to cede sovereignty even if it does not yet exist.  It isn't enough to have George Bush talk about the future State of Palestine, we have to think and say it as well.  To be sure words alone will not do it, and the settlers in Gaza and on the West Bank will continue to resist the idea.  But if we don't do our part to change the conversation, to verbally insist on a new reality, then the process will be all the harder.  At this point the forces for change need our support.  Hopefully Cliff Kulwin's next email report on a visit to Israel will naturally include the phrase, "we have seen five foreign borders."