Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Port of Entry

I don’t know if having ports managed by a Dubai company poses any real threat, nor with all due respect, do you.  The fact is that we do business and, more importantly, are all dependent on a lot of Arab countries (remember that addiciton to oil) including the Saudis from where most of those hijackers came.  Being dispassionate about it, there is a hint of racism in our latest debate of the week.  While I was aware that we are fighting a so-called war on terrorists, most of whom happen also to be Islamist extremists; I didn’t think we were at war with the entire Arab or Muslim world.  There is something here that smacks of painting everyone with too broad a brush, something that most of us find appalling and inconsistent with the American way of life.  Will everyone on that side of the room stand please, because you’re all guilty. 

It’s hard to ignore that politics has come into play here as governors and senators in the effected states rush to the microphones.  Dubai may present a serious danger to the Union, but again I don’t know that to be the case, nor I suspect do the quickly assembled protesting officials.  So we should look at this port situation in a larger, perhaps much more symbolic, context.  The port contract is a public relations disaster and perhaps even more a symptom of the ever growing and widening (more Republicans are joining in) mistrust of the administration.  In a sense, it signifies yet another example of the deaf ear – “we’ll do whatever we want no matter how it looks and we don’t have to explain our actions to the likes of you.” 

I have no doubt that the various agencies of government, defense, justice and homeland security, vetted the proposed takeover.  The trouble is that, considering the very predictable reaction, they didn’t bother to consult (or even inform) either local governments or the Congress.  Have they not heard of a heads up?  Oh yes, “we’ll decide what’s appropriate and safe”.  That’s the communications problem, an illness that has plagued the administration from the start and despite being called on it multiple times (Cheney, guns, hello) has not abated, quite the reverse.  More disturbing, or at least it should be to the President and company, is that many of us simply don't trust vetting by these politicized departments; certainly not the accuracy of their intelligence.  The DOD was off the mark when it came to Iraq, the Attorney General has called torture and ad hoc surveillance legal, and the Homeland people badly mucked up Katrina.  Moreover, we are talking about ports and it is the generally accepted fact, that these remain our most vulnerable points of entry almost five years after 9/11.  That’s where the bad guys (as they love to call them) may bring in very bad things.

But here’s what’s really bothering me today.  I had planned on writing a blog on an entirely different subject – unrelated to the war or politics for a change.  I feel like the Don Corleone in that dreadful God Father III, “they just won’t let go, but keep on pulling me back.”  If this were a novel, nobody would believe it.  It isn’t and oh do I long for some good fiction, a story to engage but one easily left behind.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Birdshot Privacy

I called it Buckshot which shows you how much this writer knows about hunting – zero.  I don’t really approve much of it either which might tempt me to say flippantly in the words of the philosopher George Carlin, “shit happens.”  But not liking hunting and not caring about a human being’s health would be totally inconsistent, hypocritical in fact.  I wish Mr. Whittington, who it now appears suffered some heart injury, a complete recovery.  The Vice President on the other hand has gotten himself into a big hole with his refusal to come clean about what probably was far less than he has now made it appear to be.  Many commentators (and politicians including Republicans) have said so and that’s not what makes me write another blog so soon.

The rationale of Cheney’s silence is that what happened on that Texas ranch in private time is a private matter.  In fact, from the day he took the second highest office in the land, the Vice President has made it clear to one and all that his private life is none of our business.  Having argued that Bill Clinton’s sex life was none of our business, I would generally have to agree.  But in the case of people in this administration who, while to a lesser degree, all insist on their privacy there is something very “wrong with this picture”, something blatantly ironic.

Dick Cheney who insists on his privacy is the same man who told Jim Lehrer in that interview last week, that the government’s invasion of our privacy was essential in fighting the so-called war against terrorism.  So let me get this straight the Vice President of the United States, a public official of the highest order has an absolute right to privacy away from the office but ordinary citizensI don’t if they happen to call someone overseas in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or the like.  If you’re reading this Mr. Cheney please take note that I personally don’t know anyone in those countries and was brought up in an old fashioned household where you just didn’t make a lot of expensive long distance much less overseas calls.  In any event, when I said not wishing for Mr. Whittington’s full recovery would be hypocritical on my part, it seems to me that Mr. Cheney and the Administration’s protesting an invasion of their privacy does me one better, by a long shot.

Privacy, that’s the point Mr. Vice President.  You want it and we think the Constitution guarantees that we get it unless of course a judge can be convinced the invasion is in the public interest.  And, Mr. One Heart Beat Away, most of what you do in private (except in your bedroom) especially when it merits a police report, is in the public interest.  We want to know.  Remember no one forced you into this job and as far as I’m concerned it would have been better if your penchant for privacy had kept you from seeking it in the first place.  Yes, we would all be better off if everything you did was really in private – back in the private sector.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Buckshot Musings

Life can be such a metaphor.  Is it at all surprising that a man incapable of being a straight shooter should misfire so badly as to hit one of his buddies rather than the target bird?  To be sure the Vice President didn’t mean it. He had his focus on quail (not his predecessor but the flying kind), when poor Harry Wittington became collateral damage.  The forever cross looking Cheney also didn’t mean to become another poster child for the innate life-threatening danger of guns, but there it is.  Nor did the man who had as much if not more to do with sending our young people into harms way understand the irony of his being out on a pleasure shoot when they were getting shot at for real.  Notwithstanding the almost unreported accident, his intended prey was hardly a group of armed insurgents, but a defenseless bunch of the avian kind.  Oh that’s it; he was out there doing prophylactic work protecting us from a potential flu pandemic.

If our condition were not so desperate, Cheney’s misadventure on that 50,000 acre ranch would be comical.  In ordinary circumstances, one couldn’t even begrudge the VP a little R&R.  But coinciding with Congressional findings on the administration’s cavalier mismanagement of Katrina when #1 was also on holiday in Texas, it’s hard to be sympathetic.  If you watched the astoundingly underwhelming Attorney General dissemble before the Judiciary Committee and Brownie’s pathetic pass-the-buck “comeback” attempt or heard about Scooter’s fingering his boss on the leaks you begin to worry seriously about the country we are leaving to our children.  It just happens that I’ve been rereading the Constitution in recent days and clearly the framers had nothing like this in mind. 

Shortly before Dick Cheney went out and shot the lawyer (an activist approach to tort reform), he gave an interview to Jim Lehrer in which, among other things, he said that the administration could not brief the whole Intelligence Committee on its controversial eavesdropping program – which is exactly what they did the very next day.  But what struck me was that unlike the “I make no mistakes President” who recently admitted a few, this guy continues to hold his crooked mouthed line.  It was Dick Cheney who proclaimed, as if it were settled fact, that Saddam and Osama were working hand in glove and that nuclear weapons were on the verge of being in Iraq's arsenal.  He doesn't say that any more, but remains in serious denial of his many recorded public misstatments.  Dick Cheney can’t shoot straight and can’t talk straight. 

Ah metaphors, what happened to metaphors?  Hunting accidents, said the Texas hospital spokesman today, are common in these parts.  Could the buckshot in that rifle Patrick Fitzgerald has been aiming at Scooter (and perhaps Karl) cause some more significant collateral damage?  I wonder if they will be able to keep that under wraps for 24 hours.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

A Very Long Farewell

I turned on the TV shortly after lunch yesterday expecting to take a brief look at the farewell service for Coretta Scott King and was still at it shortly before dinner.  Somehow, despite its extraordinary length, I couldn’t let go.  Four Presidents, a gallery of Civil Rights and other leaders and the spectacle of one of those gigantic mega churches filled (at least in the early hours) to capacity.  I must say that one of my first thoughts was the contrast between this convention-like funeral with that of my own father who locked arms with Martin King and preceded him to the podium before the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.  Following his wishes we had a fairly traditional funeral, albeit attended by many, avoiding making it a speech filled public event.  I guess that’s why Bill Clinton’s admonition (pointing to the casket), “I don’t want us to forget there is a woman in there,” resonated with me.  But Coretta was in so many ways larger than life, strong willed and not uncontroversial but certainly an icon. In that she was very much like Jackie Kennedy who from the day of her husband’s brutal death had to tread a very difficult line between the public and the private; in both their cases the public and the extremely private.

Without question both Martin Luther King and my father would have been pleased about the straight talk that emanated from some of the speakers.  It wasn’t the kind of partisan political display that so unnerved Minnesotans at Paul Wellstone’s memorial (it probably cost the Democrats a senate seat), but nonetheless the speakers were not inhibited by the presence of George Bush.  They knew where they were and what kind of life they were celebrating.  In fact, it was one of the few occasions on which I felt the presence of twentieth century activist clergy, the people who led the fight against both discrimination and violence including unnecessary wars.  The tone was set when The Reverend Joseph Lowery referred to the “misinformation” about WMDs over there and “misdirection” over here.  Perhaps no one was more pointed than Jimmy Carter, who reflecting the tone of the highly critical message of his best seller “Our Endangered Values”, reminded the assembled of FBI’s illegal wire tapping of Martin and Coretta, a contemporary reference not lost on anyone in the sanctuary.  All these views reflected Coretta and Martin King’s life work, most importantly an unflinching commitment to non-violence.

For those who were patient enough to wait, the funeral concluded with a eulogy delivered by her youngest child, The Rev. Bernice King.  Having delivered the one for my own father, I could relate to how she must have felt in the moment.  The difference of course is that I had relationship with him well into my adulthood; she was still a pre-schooler when her dad was killed.  Bernice is clearly a real preacher and it’s fitting that the one of King’s children who has taken up that mantle is a woman.  As she so pointedly said, Coretta and Martin are gone; a new generation is doing things in a new way – a new birth.  African American Churches have a long history of female preachers (including her great grandmother), but it nonetheless serves as a reminder that the future will have to be one of shared power, not of assumed male dominance.  I was also struck by the content of Bernice King’s message which seemed to reflect a more traditional (if not fundamentalist) tone than those of her late father.  While clearly stating that he was doing God’s prophetic work, I don’t remember him suggesting, as she did, that God was speaking directly to her, guiding her actions including where to hold this celebration of her mother’s life.  That’s more in tune with today’s evangelical religious speak, ironically (in the context of her mother’s funeral) shared by George W. Bush.

Among the most revealing aspects of this day was who was there but essentially left on the sidelines.  Most notable was Jesse Jackson, not known as the silent type.  Jackson has never been a favorite of the King family (nor of many activists of the day).  He was seen as grandstanding in the aftermath of King’s assassination exaggerating both his relationship with the slain leader and his role in the movement.  He projected himself (and still does) as a kind of heir, but one can’t imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. running for President.  He has so insinuated himself onto the stage since King’s death, that most people have forgotten how he got there.  If Coretta left any instruction about yesterday, I wouldn’t be surprised if keeping Jesse in the pews was underlined in red ink.

Denise talks of new birth, but for the moment the jury is out on how effective religion is in being society's conscience rather than its cheerleader in the new century.  One can’t imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr. being silent about the lack of civil discourse in the country, the ease with which we turn to military might to solve (or more accurately exasperate) problems around the globe or the use of torture by his beloved country.  None of the religious leaders who stood at the forefront of public issues in the mid-century years would have welcomed the partisan politicization of faith, nor the ends justify the means philosophy that prevails today.  Denise is right, her parents and the generation which they represent are gone.  The problem is that their message as a dominant moral influence had already predeceased Coretta leaving a void and consequently a mess.  Sure some of the old timers are still around and a few like Carter even write books, but time is creeping up on them.  It’s now left to all of us, particularly the younger generation.  They better get out the brooms and starting cleaning up that mess – sooner rather than later.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

When Pictures Hurt

My definition of a minor medical procedure is one that is happening to someone else.  In the same vein, as the crescendo of Moslem protest rises across the Middle East and elsewhere, some outsiders like us may wonder what the fuss is all about.  After all, this uproar seems out of proportion to a few cartoon depictions of a historic figure, albeit a religious one.  Well minor procedures are not always painless and this one has obviously hit a nerve.  It’s not the first time.  Remember the riots in Afghanistan in reaction to a copy of the Koran purportedly being flushed down the toilet?  Then there was the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in historically peaceful Holland.  All these things are of a piece and all reflect not merely heightened tension between Moslems and Western ways but between and within religious groups.  The present uproar is being portrayed as a freedom of the press issue which to some degree it certainly is.  But it is also a reflection of our diminished civility, mutual respect and most painfully the negative role that religion is playing in current geopolitical conflicts (hence the content of the cartoons).  As to the underlying question of freedom to express, it isn’t always whether we have the right to say (or print) something, (which I firmly believe we do), but whether saying our piece is likely to unnecessarily hurt a fellow human being.  There is no easy answer to that and perhaps no right answer either, at least in the absolute sense.

This whole thing started in Denmark, perhaps one of the most benign and tolerant countries in the world.  It is also, despite having an official state religion, one of the least religious.  Only 5% of Danes go to church with any regularity.  In that regard, predominantly secular Danes may not be sensitive to the Moslem proscription against depicting the Prophet Mohammad, nor for that matter to a similar Jewish prohibition against depicting God.  After all, the Christian Churches which they know best regularly portray images of Jesus on their alters and museums, including those all over Europe, are filled with paintings depicting him.  The great Sistine Chapel has that extraordinary Michelangelo depiction of God reaching the hand of creation out to Adam.  On the surface then everything is explainable including the critical commentary on militant Islamism reflected in some of the cartoons.  But in a deeper sense it is a metaphor for our lack of mutual understanding, if not absolute disrespect.  It is part of that current “my way or no way” thinking that has so poisoned our public discourse at home and abroad. 

There are many things that go into making for a great friendship or marriage.  Among them of course is knowing how to please each other.  But perhaps the most important test of friendship, or expression of it, is knowing what hurts the other person.  Being sensitive to that, and more importantly protecting that vulnerability, often requires that we think before we speak or act.  It isn’t always a question of our ability to get out the words or do something, but measuring how it will be received.  That’s why newspapers and magazines have editors and why sometimes we consciously edit our own actions in personal relationships.  While candor is usually the best course, and should be the norm, selective editing about highly sensitive subjects isn’t inconsistent with integrity.  This is a tough global neighborhood in which we find ourselves today and navigating through it takes some doing.  We all like to talk about how small our planet has become, how easy it is to interact and to collaborate across national borders.  But as technology facilitates communication with others, the greater responsibility we have to understand those at the other end of the line.  My guess is the particular Dane who started this all, simply didn’t understand, and perhaps in the context of the real world in which we live that is becoming increasingly inexcusable.

We can’t condone the violent reaction taking place on the Moslem street some of which is undoubtedly being fomented by larger agendas.  The protests in Afghanistan that cost lives (and an apology by a news magazine) apparently had nothing to do with the desecration of the Koran (unknown to the demonstrators).  Nor in end can we tolerate any constraints beyond our own on how we express ourselves.  At the same time, all of us have a vested interest in doing something to change the dynamics of a world that is moving ever so swiftly toward catastrophe.  People in power, whether it’s President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust to marshal support among the most radical in his streets, or on the other side Donald Rumsfeld comparing Hugo Chavez to Hitler at the National Press Club, have lost their sense of restraint and are pushing us further into conflict with both words and deeds.  The cartoon controversy has to be viewed in that unrestrained context; simply another expression of the same inflammatory thing.  Right or wrong is not the issue.  How to change course is.