Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Primitive Design

When Fredrick March’s fictional character Mathew Harrison Brady took the stand toward the end of the trial in the 1960 film classic Inherit the Wind, it wasn’t his opponent Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) that took him apart.  It was his own dogma and blind acceptance of Genesis, the unquestioned Word on creation.  It is almost unfathomable that these many years after the Scopes Trial which inspired that movie (and the play upon which it was based), people are once again going to court over whether evolution and real science should prevail in public education.  The very same hucksters who branded those opposed to reproductive choice “Pro-Life” have more recently invented the pseudo-science of "Intelligent Design".  In fact the mumbo jumbo that claims to give credibility to this notion and accord it equal standing with Darwin is nothing more than an ideological insistence that the words found in the first chapters of Genesis are literally true.  Its proponents aren’t defending the idea that God had a role, perhaps a defining role, in getting this life we have started, but their own proclaimed definitive version of that truth.  Whether or not you believe in God or in his role in creation, the fact remains that the narrative in the first chapters of the Bible reflects the view of people who were also convinced, among other things, that the earth was flat.  Be assured were it not for indisputable evidence that when we fly east we will eventually reach our starting point, not to mention all those photographs of the earth from outer space, the folks pushing repackaged creationism would probably want the kids to learn about flatness as well.

Opinion polls suggest that a large number of Americans think it’s OK, and perhaps even a good idea, to teach Intelligent Design as a counterpoint to Evolution – something with which our Commander in Faith agrees.  But polls today are so skewed by misinformation (huge numbers of Americans still think Saddam had a hand in 9/11) that they no longer have much credibility.  In fact, there are probably more than a few Americans who believe our president’s name in Barlet not Bush.  If only that were true.  No this creeping creationism is just another manifestation of an ongoing attempt to turn our democracy into a partisan theocracy, not merely ruled by religion but a certain kind of religion.  They decry Islamic fundamentalists who in fact are their true sole mates.  Perhaps Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and company don’t send forth suicide bombers, but ultimately it’s a distinction in tactical nuance not substance.  They are seeking to destroy the Republic envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers.  At a time when we are sorely lagging in teaching the sciences (our kids can’t compete with their Indian or Asian contemporaries) this assault on Darwin transcends a simple dispute over our origins.  Primitive Design (a more descriptive and appropriate name) is an assault on our future, an attempt to turn the clocks back and rejoin the dark ages.  When will Americans wake up to its danger?  When will our political and mainstream religious leaders have the courage to challenge this, to paraphrase John Dean’s immortal words, “cancer on our democracy”?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Road Trip / 2

Just impressions, no more.

Our first excursion off I-40 took us down the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina and into the Smoky Mountains across the Tennessee border, some of the most beautiful and pristine scenery you’ll find in the southeastern United States.  We passed one vista after another each more breathtaking than the one before.  Exiting all this peaceful beauty you find yourselves shocked back into some sort of horrendous reality as you pass immediately through a little strip of land called Pigeon Forge which probably can only be described as a very low rent Las Vegas (or at least what I imagine Las Vegas to be).  One after another are a series of honky-tonk amusement parklets (they are too small to be called parks), “as seen on TV” shops and eating or sleeping establishments where you would unlikely want to break bread or rest your head.  The contrast between the natural beauty you have feasted upon and human made trash that sits at its edge is a real metaphor for the worst of what we humans have done to our planet.  It’s not a pretty picture.

The same can be said of the Interstate itself which, while not without some very beautiful and unspoiled stretches, generally is a tribute to the “Fast Food Nation” and Motel 6 world that we have become.  It wasn’t easy to find fresh vegetables or fruit or to avoid fat laden fare without really trying on this voyage across the land of plenty.  Homogenized is probably the right way to describe it and, were it not for maps, changing license plates and  the new time zones recorded on our cell phones it was often hard to distinguish one state or region from another.  Hard to distinguish except for the changing landscape, the hints of beauty that continually drew us off the Interstate and into the real world that lay beyond.

Without dismissing the lush green mountains of the more easterly areas, I for one was taken most by the western deserts, landscapes that prevail in New Mexico, Arizona and into California.  I had a taste of them some years back when visiting Scottsdale and Sedona, but this was a ten course meal.  The colors and the vistas, the natural and at times surreal rock formations, the openness (thanks in part to the fact that reservations are protected land) and the magnificent unspoiled starkness of it all.  We saw the excavated remnants of Chaco Culture with buildings dating back more than a thousand years, a reminder that despite our puffed up self importance, something of great substance was here long before Columbus triggered the Europeanization of the continent bringing our “culture” to the “savages”.  We took in the Grand Canyon which reminds you that this planet is millions of years old, etched out of primordial waters.  So much for the thousands of years claimed by the Intellegent Design folk just because Genesis claims it's so.

Perhaps what is most striking about what one sees beyond the grandeur of the landscape is the human condition.  The fact that so many of our fellow citizens are in such dire straights is inescapable, and equally so that civilization often shows a very destructive face, trashing not enhancing the earth it finds.  It gives meaning to the campaign slogans decrying tax cuts for the rich and humanly created global warming.  Evidences of both abuses are right there before your eyes, not in mouthed platitudes but with human faces and spoiled landscapes.  What is also striking is how much more respect those in the center seem to have for the land, especially shared public land, than do we coastal folk.  The first trash we saw roadside (reminiscent of back home) was when we hit California – the other places even on I-40 are amazingly clean.  To be sure there was lot’s of trash and broken down cars and machinery around those hovels people call home, but that speaks more to their misery than to a lack of respect.  Perhaps these scraps can be recycled in the future.  Peerhaps carting that stuff off is just too expensive or too low on the priority list when survival is the order of the day.

I don’t pretend to really know the America we saw on this trip.  We were just passing through.  We ate in some local places walked some local paths, but we were visitors on our way to some place from some place.  We were onlookers not participants.  Perhaps all my impressions are off the mark, but I wouldn’t trade the experience and can only hope to expand upon it in the years to come.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Road Trip / 1

I’ve been on the road for most of the week driving cross country with my daughter-in-law Rachel from Chapel Hill North Carolina to Palo Alto California where she and my son Jesse are spending the academic year.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and the experience has been overwhelming.  Crossing America is a reality check for any one living in the New York bubble.  It’s also an incredible visual experience – I write these words from the Grand Canyon.  I don’t claim to have had a complete De Tocqueville experience (there is so much more of the country to see), but it has also left a deep impression on me.  Here are some preliminary thoughts.

America is a place of contrasts, great beauty and incredible ugliness.  Living among the affluent brick and mortar canyons of Manhattan, I was reminded about how modestly most of our fellow citizens live, how many of them so clearly at the margin.  America is not the Interstate (on our trip mostly I-40) but off on the roads which intersect it and even more so those that are unconnected.  Most people stay in place, many in very small and remote place.  They are stuck where they are by both habit and realistic circumstance.

Much of our trip has been through the so-called Red States.  We traveled many miles on those smaller roads, primarily to experience the country’s natural beauty – the Blue Ridge and the Smokies, the great deserts of New Mexico and Arizona and today, before starting the final leg, the Canyon.  Needless to say we only scratched the surface.  What we saw left me speechless.  Traveling through the back roads of places like Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas, one is struck immediately by the fact that John Kerry didn’t have a chance in these places.  And it isn’t only the liberal politics – Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter shared that, but the obvious disconnect between an aloof patrician and the down to earth people of these areas.  One also wonders how George Bush the faux plain country guy whose agenda is so pro big business and special interests could possibly have won their hearts which gives you even greater respect for Karl Rove’s image making machine.  Neither man ever had to put only a few gallons of regular in his tank instead of mindlessly filling up high test.

Ah gasoline.  Good timing to take to the road with current gas prices, wouldn’t you say?  Guess where we found the “cheapest” gas?  You got it, Texas.  Make of that what you will.  I for one am happy about these gas prices because until now the American public has had to pay no price for our elective war in Iraq which, more than Katrina, has caused them to rise.  The current spike notwithstanding, they had already more than doubled before the hurricane struck.  I couldn’t help thinking of what filling up was costing all those SUVs and PTs (personal trucks) that passed us on the road or what they are costing all those people who park them in the garage of my New York City building.  Perhaps this oil shock will wake people up though our government still is playing reckless head-in-the-sand about energy policies.  Of course the trouble is that these prices are inflicting tremendous hardship on just the people we saw on those back roads with old inefficient cars and trucks which they depend on so heavily.  Not to worry, Bush is not planning to raise the taxes that they probably don’t pay because they live below the poverty level.

Contrasts I suggested was a large part of what we saw.  The natural beauty juxtaposed against the flimsy shelters which so many Americans call home.  No where was this more poignantly evident than in the spectacular landscape of New Mexico and Arizona Navaho reservations where home is so often a wooden hovel, a dilapidated trailer or some kind of low cost dwelling that was delivered on a truck.  Perhaps some reservations in the country have benefited from Casino wealth, but for the most part we have not done well by the Native Americans whose way of life was disrupted by our invasion – the first time we brought democracy to a foreign land.

I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, had many eye opening and wonderful experiences, but this has been one of the best and most instructive.  More to come when I recapture my land legs.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005


I’m so relieved, aren’t you? Dick Chaney, The Man, will be landing in the Gulf – oh, I mean the Gulf States – on Thursday.  And it’s not surprising that he’s been dispatched to assess the situation because, as the New York Times reported today, Halliburton is already gearing up for major contracts to fix all that oil patch infrastructure mess. Someone has to identify the targets for their sales effort and who better than their very best friend in the world? Many displaced people are being given shelter in Houston which is commendable, but there will be compensation, if not for the victims then certainly for Bush’s city. The Times says Houston is looking forward to a “business boom.” Wow!  What surprising good fortune. That’s part of why I’m so relieved, but the least of it.

Here’s what’s really making me feel better. George W. Bush, the man with such an impressive record of disciplining the incompetent in his administration, is personally taking on the job of investigating what the government did right and did wrong in the aftermath of Katrina. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Brownie get the Freedom Medal or even a cabinet post when this assessment is complete.  Let’s see, ah yes, Secretary of Human Services, perfect.  A BBC reporter on the scene (the President in two trips still hasn’t set foot in New Orleans) was asked by the anchor to detail what Bush might find was done right and without missing a beat answered with what was done did wrong. Nancy Pelosi had the right advice for the commander-in-chief (he loves that title so), “start by looking in the mirror.” I’m sure the President sees his announcement as a signal that he is really taking charge. I see a conflict of interest.  Remember the howling of his administration when UN officials proposed investigating their own mismanagement of the Iraqi food program? How can the guy who couldn’t even mobilize himself in the wake of what was an obviously a historic catastrophe evaluate performance?  Where did Harry Truman say the buck stopped?

I’d love to feel better about this place we call home, our country. I want to be proud of it what it does, of its decency.  I really want to be relieved.  But here we are in year five of the new century and so many of us find ourselves frustrated and depressed. How could so much be going wrong, continue to go wrong?  Hurricanes are random. Leadership can’t be random, human response can’t be random.  It’s time that those who spend so much time espousing Intelligent Design, knocking randomness in how we evolved, start delivering on their ideology. Fat chance, with them it’s all talk.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Delayed Reaction, Again

Delayed Reaction, Again

Compassion is not a photo-op.  If you read David Brooks’ column in the Times earlier in the week, you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear him tell Jim Lehrer that the government’s response to the Gulf States catastrophe represented a possible watershed (my word not his) event.  What surprised me was to hear that the images of President Bush yesterday hugging and lamenting made him angry.  Brooks, a long time supporter of Bush’s policies, wasn’t sure that we’ve reached the tipping point, but perhaps we have. Could it be that this awful disaster might awake America from its dream state coma?

What’s also clear this week, something which must come as a great shock to those cocky know-it-all neocons, is that what we need is more government not less.  Despite the valiant and commendable contributions being made by religious groups in this time of human crisis, all the faith-based initiatives in the world can’t rescue populations in the millions or help them rebuild their shattered lives.  Also, I can't help wondering what all those good church people who voted for George Bush primarily because he was a man of faith must be thinking today about the clueless government they brought into power, not to mention the man.  Here is a president who rushed back to Washington to sign the save-vegetative-state-Terry bill when he couldn’t muster an immediate action, not to mention picking himself up from the brush whacker, to address saving viable lives, many of whom will undoubtedly have died needlessly from neglect.

Bush had a delayed reaction to the Hurricane and it wasn’t the first time.  Remember how long it took him to react to September 11?  We forget it now because we had an activist mayor who stood in the breach and, without taking away from that moment of grand leadership, knew how to make everyone feel that, as Arthur Miller might have put it, “attention was being paid” even if it was not. I don’t know what it is about Bush.  When he first started the wrap was that he couldn’t think or do for himself, that Dick Chaney and others were simply pulling the strings.  Since then, we’re constantly told that the president really is a smart guy and that he’s in charge.  I find myself going back to the default.  At the very least his obvious lack of spontaneity suggests a man who, if not manipulated by handlers, calculates every move and, if required, will sacrifice any of us to make sure that his photo ops look right.  Some people said he waited to get down close and personal with what he calls “the folks” until the TV screens could simultaneously show the truck convoy of help, like him much delayed, on the way.  As usual, the compliant media pitched in with a lot of split screens – hugging scenes along with trucks filled to the brim.  Of course the idea of any such coordination would be cynical, wouldn’t it?  But be assured that he wasn’t about to go down there and give “Brownie” (his FEMA director) a thumbs up until something – anything – was happening.

I keep on trying to figure out George Bush’s problem?  The man talks of his faith and of his compassionate conservatism (now there is an oxymoron) and yet he lacks the basic instincts one would expect of someone so committed.  I think the answer may actually be quite simple.  Bush has never in his life experienced lack of resources much less any substantial discomfort.  John Kerry may have grown up in relative affluence, but at least he experienced the down and dirty in Viet Nam.

The problem with all the rich people whom we now have in government is not that they have money or even that it takes so much to play the game these days.  That’s an issue for election reform.  The problem is that they have no idea about how the vast majority of people live, the problems they face and their way of survival which so often is, of necessity, taking it one agonizing day at a time.  That it is time for new leadership is to state the obvious.  In thinking about what kind of president we need, perhaps it should be someone who at least started out poor.  Bill Clinton, no less political than Bush, didn’t have delayed reactions and, while he is not the only one, John Edwards probably wouldn’t have either.  Both, now well off, started with nothing.  Obviously, even the born rich can have compassion and good instincts (there are many examples) but having known struggle is not a bad thing to have on a presidential wannabe’s resume.  How did they put it back in the old days? “Power to the people.”