Saturday, March 29, 2008


Barack Obama, in speech after speech, asks us to follow him into a land that many of us had thought we would never see again, one that has lain fallow and empty for so many years that it had begun to seem as something out of a long-faded dream. In his words of hope and his ideals of an America that can be one again, he hearkens us back to the America in which so many of us grew up. It's easy for nostalgia to take over and romanticize it, and I know things were never peaches and cream, but there was a simplicity to things that allowed people to interact more openly with each other back then.

In the quiet community where I grew up, all of us, all generations, hung out in the neighborhoods, dropped in to each other's homes both invited and uninvited, stayed out into the night when it was summer enjoying the warm air. All of us knew our neighbors, almost all of them, by name, and had daily interactions with them. Our parents were friends; we played at each other's homes and we had private places away from adults where we played in the woods or the fields. The sound of the ice cream truck was a special and electric sound. A family night at the drive-in movie was a fantastic adventure. We may romanticize a lot, but we don't need to embellish these things; they were real. But that's not the world I see today.

My children rarely seem to go out into the world to interact with others. Aside from the daily stimuli of school, extracurricular activities, and bus rides, their social engagements tend to consist of sitting in front of flickering screens. I should talk, right? Where am I right now?

This is the world of 2008, the world we are living in. Many of us–including those of us who bemoan the self-incarceration of society while spending more and more of our time alone with computers, with TV's, with iPods–wonder what the heck is going on. Many of us seem to feel, especially as we watch the internet and video games seduce our younger counterparts and our children, that this presages the end of civilization as we know it. What is civilization, anyway, but people interacting with people? If we stop doing that, haven't we essentially destroyed it?

What happened to the world we grew up in? we ask, but it's like wondering why you don't look good in a bikini anymore or where those spots on your hands came from. It's a stupid question. What happened is that time passed. Time passed and things changed. Humans age and so do societies, whether we want them to or not, and we–the remnants of the Boomer generation (of which I am a part of the tail end)–are now witnessing the reality that our parents saw back in the sixties and seventies, when they first began to understand that the world had altered beyond recognition.

Ah, we protest, but we were going to change it for the better. Why has it become so isolated? When we were younger, we saw the previous generation's world as one of rigidity and overzealous and false piety. We saw the lies that lay at its foundation, the pretense that so much of the "adult" world was hiding from us. The cocktail parties our parents threw, the ones where we sneakily watched from the top of the stairs as adults mingled in cigarette haze, sipping drink after drink oblivious to their inebriation, were mysteries; we saw but could not comprehend. We did not see their need to escape the restrictions that their lives imposed upon them. All we wanted and needed was the freedom of our own world. And our world offered it wherever we looked.

Other than the rigidity imposed on us by school, we were completely free back then. We played freely throughout the neighborhoods and even beyond. If someone wanted to go somewhere, she just popped on a bike and went there. She came back for dinner, or she called and asked if she could eat with her friend. It was relaxed, easy going. There were no schedules to keep, no soccer leagues for moms to have to drive to, no need at all to keep track of us. The world was not yet dangerous. Or if it was, we were blissfully ignorant of its dangers.

We all know that's not the case today. Childhood is not the bastion of relaxed freedom it once was. Even the youngest child's life is likely to be absurdly over-scheduled, and these days parents begin worrying about whether their decisions will impact their child's college chances before the kid is even in kindergarten. Somewhere the world has gone mad. No wonder our kids are reacting against it by retreating from it. No wonder we are too.

We have more reason than they do. They are too young to remember the ugliness that accompanied the first efforts of the older part of our generation to exert itself. They look at the unrest of the 60's–isn't that a nice, oblique word for what often was more like terrorism?–as ancient history, as we looked at World War Two. They are too young to remember the last time the country started to believe that a candidate for President might be able to rekindle the idealism of John Kennedy, too young to remember that day in June when Bobby was gunned down in California, only two months after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. They are too young to remember the last years of Vietnam, the pain of Watergate, the oil embargo. They are too young to remember how the ascension of Ronald Reagan–now viewed as an icon of the GOP–divided America in a way it has never since recovered from. They are even too young to remember the stupid blue dress.

Among their memories, though already a fading one, is 9/11. Today's high schoolers have fainter and fainter recollections of that terrifying day when everything that had not yet changed did so. But we do. We do, and we know the demons that the world can unleash. And more and more we retreat from the world. More and more we find that the fight is not worth it, or we feel that we can be just as effective fighting it in our own quieter, smaller ways.

A correspondent who calls himself Nulwee mentioned that Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zisek had referred to the wake of the 60's generation as "a national culture of masturbation." Zisek probably meant it negatively, probably was referring to the fact that this revolutionary generation became the great Wall Street generation of the 80's, sucking up money left and right in the Reagan years while the nation drove itself deeper and deeper into debt. But it might not be wholly a negative thing.

It isn't that the glorious energy of those who wanted to change the world vanished in the wake of the revolution's end, but that they continued their fights more privately, more subtly, taking their pleasure in smaller acts of aggression against those aspects of the status quo they sought to change. This pattern, Nulwee said, is what brought us cause ribbons and wristbands, renewable energy, recycling, and lots of other quiet positives the world has seen in recent years, the byproduct of a revolutionary generation gone underground.

But his argument goes further, and says that a culture that teaches its children "to be responsible, compassionate and socially conscious," but leaves no room for privacy, no acceptance of failure, no room to explore on their own–a culture tamed by satellite TV that has adopted the unofficial mantra of "live and let live"–is one that may seem benign in most ways but is in fact "post-human, or at least post-civilization as far as I can tell."

So we spend more and more of our lives in front of these flickering screens. We interact with friends, real and virtual, through them. We seek information through them. We send out our collective insights through them. We find entertainment through them. We challenge ourselves and each other through them. We donate to charities through them. We pay our bills through them. We shop through them. More and more, we have little real need to leave the security of our homes and venture into the increasingly dangerous world.

I do not know if it is possible for a President to change all of this. It's been going on too long. The world is indeed vastly different from the one in which we grew up. The change is not all bad, though. Barack Obama could never have run for President in that world. But I'd give anything to find some of the innocence we had back then and replant it to see if, in the children of tomorrow, it could take hold and grow.


another powerful obama video

A man named Bob Cesca made this video from Obama's race speech, using Roger Waters' "The Tide Is Turning" as the music. It is yet another amazing and moving moment in this campaign. Something really is happening here, and (with apologies to Buffalo Springfield) what it is is perfectly clear.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

the light of youth

I spend so much of my life in high school. Every day I awake at dawn (grudgingly, very grudgingly, for I have never been a morning person, and my choice of career is therefore a lifelong masochistic joke) get myself ready, stop at a coffee shop (because otherwise I'd be sleepwalking until third period) and head off to share my day with hundreds of people a third of my age. Most of them can't wait to grow up, to move on, to graduate and take their place in the vast world. My own place, my destiny, is to live among them, to remain endlessly a fixture in the strange, false, enclosed world that is high school. I see them grow and strive and succeed and fail. I see them laugh and cry and work and play. I see trends and fads come and go. And every day, in every one of their faces, I see the promise and the hope of youth.

Much has been written about the notion that the young are reckless, that they think of themselves as invulnerable, that they are self-centered, that they don't care about anything other than what will get them ahead, etc. Sometimes these things are true. Like any generalization about any group of people, you can find examples that illustrate it in real life. But what I witness on a daily basis are the far more subtle nuances of teenage life in all of its chaos and drama, much of which we, as adults, see with our adult perspective as unimportant because, having the benefit of the long term, we know that it does will not matter in what we call the grand scheme of things. And that is true. But what we as adults cannot remember is that they, as teens, have only their fifteen or sixteen years of life to draw from. Their current dramas and causes are everything to them. They are the only things that matter.

Perhaps this explains why so much idealism is centered in the young. We have witnessed this dramatically in our own recent history. The uprisings and protests of the 60's that were supposed to change the world for the better were led by college students. They were going to lead us into a world in which race, sex, and other incidental distinctions between people did not matter. There was even a brief moment–remember the "summer of love"?–when in their youthful idealism they may truly have believed what the Beatles were telling them: "All you need is love." Of course, that was 1967, before it all went sour. Before Watts. Before Detroit. Before MLK and Bobby Kennedy. Before Chicago and the '68 Convention. Before Kent State and Cambodia. Before Altamont, when even the music was no longer a place to hide. Before so much that lit the dream of hope on fire and burnt it to the ground.

When reality and all of its ugliness intrudes upon idealism, the ugliness usually wins. It makes sense. It is so very, very hard to remain true to the causes of justice in the face of a society that not only stomps upon justice but actually rewards those who do so. The young idealists of the sixties watched their causes fall, one by one, to the ugliness, as violence begat violence and the notion of peaceful protest became yet another fantasy in the Nixonian police state. When Nixon fell, perhaps for a moment they might have felt vindicated. Perhaps for a moment their hopes might have been renewed. But his pardon–though it was probably the right decision by President Ford at the time for a nation desperately in need of healing–must have been the final nail in the coffin of 60's idealism.

The young radicals grew up and settled into suburbia. Their youthful anger at The Man and The System faded as they became a part of the system, as they themselves became The Man. They became doctors, accountants, lawyers, politicians. Even Jerry Rubin, one of the infamous "Chicago Seven," went on to become a successful businessman. And almost every time one of the old radicals, still wanted by the law for some misdeed large or small, is unearthed, he or she is living quietly in the 'burbs, the father or mother of three or four children, in a quiet little neighborhood, unnoticed, unrecognized as the leader of this or that violent underground organization from so long ago.

We settle. We settle because it is easier to say yes to the ways of the world than it is to say no. It is easier to say yes, sure, whatever, when the promise of a decent though undramatic life is held out to us, when the opportunity to live comfortably and profitably and peacefully is proffered. It is so much harder to turn it down, to hold out for the ideal, to demand what once upon a time we would have demanded: everything.

In one of my classes I am teaching Jean Anouilh's Antigone, a 1940's update of the classic Sophocles play. Anouilh wrote his play as a not-too-subtle message to his fellow members of the French Resistance to keep up the struggle, no matter how hopeless it all seemed. The Vichy government was established and in power; it was placating the masses; it was doing whatever it could to be perceived as, at worst, a benevolent dictatorship. Anouilh saw the trap: this was a government that was fully cooperating with the Nazis, that was at least aware of if not actively a participant in the extermination of Jews. This was not France. France should not acquiesce to it so calmly and easily. In his play, he uses the character of the king, Creon, as a stand-in for the leader of the Vichy government, Philippe P├ętain, and Antigone herself, the doomed teen heroine, as a symbol of the Resistance.

Desperate to fulfill her youthful idealistic obligation to bury her dead brother despite Creon's proclamation against it, though she knows it means death, Antigone finds herself face to face with the King who, it turns out, is not the despot she envisions, nor is the brother so blameless as she has believed. After a long conversation, Creon finally convinces her of these things, that she would be dying for a cause that is not worth dying for, and she almost walks away from it. But then she remembers her soul: what is it that he wants her to settle for? Something halfway? Some mindless mediocre life? Some path of least resistance that he defines as "happiness"? And she says "No." Though it means death and she knows it, though the cause may be tainted, she chooses to fight on because, she tells him, it is not worth living if she has to settle. She cannot say "yes" to some phantom half-living because it is "comfortable." If there is anything that she can do to bring change about, she will do it.

"What a person can do," she tells him, "a person ought to do."

Yes, it is true. There was so much promise in the past, so much that was supposed to change because of the power and attitudes and idealism of youth. It's sad how so often we settle for something less than our ideals, and sadder still how we lie to ourselves about the degree to which we have achieved those ideals. A respondent to yesterday's blog spoke of "something precious" that has been "ripped" from his soul when it became clear in this political campaign that we are not so post-racial as we had hoped. Yes: it was that promise, that destiny of enlightenment that the 60's generation was supposed to shine on the world. When all was said and done, perhaps it is true that the light was less a beacon of cosmic illumination than an ornate but ultimately inefficient chandelier.

But the fact that the light was not powerful enough may have had as much to do with the difficulties of beginning a new movement as anything else. It takes so much more energy to start a boulder rolling forward than to sustain it once it is rolling, and if it gains momentum, there will come a time when nothing at all will be able to hold it back. That is the law of inertia, and we had been pretty darned inert in this nation for generations, especially in matters of equality and civil rights. But granting those rights does not immediately change attitudes. Maybe it was not for the youth of the 60's to succeed but to make a start. Maybe it is the youth of today, those high school teens whom I see each day, who will finally take that movement and carry it to fruition. Maybe they are the ones whose light is bright enough to be a new sun for us all.

I'm fifty years old and I have not lost my idealism, but that may be due to the fact that I spend all of my life among the young. For those who do not: remember when you truly believed that a different future was possible. It is only through believing that we can act, and only through acting that we can make it happen. We need to say "no" to the same negativity we've seen forever, to the same anger, the same frustrations. We need to say "no" to politics as usual. What a person can do, a person ought to do. And we can change the future.

Yes, we can.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

talking to ourselves about race

I sit down in my usual spot, a beige recliner in a cluttered and too-small living room. It lies too flat these days, due to the pressure put on it by my youngest daughter, who enjoys sitting behind me and leaning over my shoulders to read what I am composing; her added weight has done something to the chair's mechanics. She is not behind me right now.

On the couch across from me, my husband snores; we've returned from overindulging on an Easter brunch, and he's probably the smart one: I suspect we all could benefit from a nap. Three cats are asleep as well, two upstairs and one behind me on the dining room table (where she is not supposed to be). This is my life. It is predictable. It is simple, middle class, suburban. I have been a part of this kind of existence throughout my fifty years; I know nothing else.

It is, for the most part, a fairly benign existence; compared to the struggle that many others have to go through, I have been very fortunate. I know this. But we are only capable of being the product of our lives' journeys: whether that product is an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo or a radical re-envisioning of our parents' morality, our worlds are shaped by who we are and who we have been. Mine has been stable, middle class, comfortable, educated, liberal, caring, and fulfilling. It has also been white.

I grew up in New Hampshire, a state that–we are reminded every election cycle–is well over 95% white. When I was growing up, I think the percentage must have been closer to 99%. In any event, I do not even recall seeing a black person until I was about eight or nine years old and visiting relatives near Pittsburgh. My reaction was more curiosity than anything: "Oh, that's a black person."

I am so white that I read a book by Barbary Delinski that turned on whether a family's ancestry had any African-American blood in it, and my reaction was "so what if it does?"

I am so white that I once got into a lengthy discussion/argument with a friend of color about whether it was possible for someone who was not white to be racist. I of course argued that it is. I still believe that.

I am so white that, though I do not care one whit about the color of a person's skin, I have in my list of friends and acquaintances only three African-Americans that I can think of off-hand. I am so white that I find that pathetic.

I am so white that I teach in a nearly lily-white town and attend a nearly lily-white church. I'd prefer both to be more integrated, but they are not. And I am there.

I am so white that, yes, I admit that I get nervous when I am walking late at night and the people behind me are young men of color. I get nervous if they are young white men too, but this is a nervousness of a different nature. And I know it is stupid, and I know that it means nothing and I could as easily be mugged by a white kid, but I am so white that I am frightened nonetheless.

I am so white that I tell myself and anyone else who will listen that I am not a racist, that I bear no prejudice against people of color, and I believe it because I would never discriminate nor tolerate discrimination in any form or manner, but at the same time I find myself irritated at the very phrase "people of color" because it is so grammatically awkward and because it represents at least the fifth time in my life that black people have redefined what they prefer to be called, and it makes me crazy. White people don't, even though white is a really stupid way to refer to us, since none of us, not even an albino, is really and truly white. I am so white that I really don't think that little diatribe makes me a racist at all.

This is the problem with having an open and honest dialogue about race: most of us do not know ourselves on this matter. We know who we want to be. We know who we wish we could be. But we do not know who we are because we have not yet had the conversation with ourselves that has to precede any meaningful conversation with others. I am a white liberal Unitarian-Universalist who believes in equality for absolutely every social group there is. How could I harbor any racist thoughts or opinions or beliefs? I who would be the first to shout down the hate-mongers if they spouted words or ideas that seeded racial discord? I who am known to walk out of my classroom to chastise random students who fling the word "gay" around in the hallway as an insult? I who insist that the girls in my classes stand up for themselves? How could I be prejudiced? The only thing I can't tolerate is intolerance!

And yet, that is exactly the honest question I need to ask myself, and the honest answer I must insist upon from myself if I am to make a start in furthering the dialogue that Barack Obama has asked us all to begin. Put bluntly: Am I a racist? Or maybe, less harshly: Do I harbor any racist thoughts or feelings against my better judgment? And the answer comes back: I am so white that the only realistic answer to this question must be yes.

It is possible for a white person to be free of racism, but I suspect it is not easy in a single generation. I am the first generation of my family to focus on that issue. My children, growing up in what pundits are referring to as a "post-racial" world, might have a chance, but they attend my church too and their school has as few black people as mine does. Still I do not hear anything from them that even recognizes that racial distinctions matter, and that is encouraging because of course they shouldn't.

It is the generation that came before mine–Reverend Wright's generation–who started this conversation. Many, like him, have been mired so deeply in the discordant undertones of it that they cannot find their way back out. Some, though, have managed to pass on their better natures to their children, and in my generation we see the rise of men and women like Obama, who know we need to move past the divisiveness at last. At long last, though, it will be the next generation, our children's generation, that may be able finally to achieve that laudable goal. Unlike us, they did not come from a world torn by the overt racism of apartheid and pre-Civil Rights America. They did not come from a time when the racial violence threatened to tear apart the fabric of this great nation. They have no memory of Watts or Detroit or LA or Washington. They have no memory of Chicago and the Black Panthers. This was not their fight. It is, if anything, a part of a very ugly moment in American history, one that–perhaps–they will learn from.

I sit in my beige recliner typing these words, residual racist that I am, praying that my children will not have to look at their own souls at fifty and find similar truths that so horrifically violate their idealistic self-perceptions. In my thirties, I argued so vehemently with a friend who is both black and Latino that I was not in any way a racist. It was such a violation of everything I stood for, everything I believed, that she could even suggest such a thing by saying that my statement that I "understood" something she was trying to illuminate was an example of white arrogance and that I could not, as a white person, ever "understand." The irony is not that there were things about me about which she was unaware that would have helped her to see why I thought I did understand, but that, for all of my great empathy, she was right: I didn't and I couldn't.

But I am so white that I thought I could.

We need to begin the conversation openly with each other by beginning it openly with ourselves. Only then can it ever become meaningful. Only then can it hope to make a difference.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

a leader emerges

Something remarkable happened in Philadelphia yesterday.

Rarely is it possible to witness something historical and recognize it for what it is: a watershed moment, a standard by which all future moments will be measured. But that's exactly what we watched yesterday when Barack Obama delivered his powerful, poignant and personal speech on race relations in America, challenging all of us not to wash this under a carpet, not to pretend everything is OK in the name of normalization of our social relationships, but to deal with it. As Jon Stewart noted on the Daily Show, he did what no politician ever dares to do: he spoke to us on a critical issue as if we were adults. And in this speech, in this incredible moment--did you feel it?--the earth shifted.

Nothing Obama said yesterday will or can have an immediate impact on the legacy of 300 years of mistreatment and mistrust between the races in America. No one man and no one speech can work that particular miracle. But what Obama did yesterday was significant: instead of taking the easy and obvious route away from his Reverend Wright problems, he confronted them head-on and then did more: he demanded that we confront them too. Instead of pandering to our better self-perceptions, he spoke to us as if we were adults, saying yes, yes, there are serious race issues in this country, and yes, we all have them. Even the best of us--his own beloved white grandmother, for example--have racist emotional reactions brought on by generations of fear, generations of hatred.

Blacks, whites, Latinos, we all possess these flaws in perception; we all find it much easier to place blame than to confront the underlying causes. And blame is so very easy to place: we can see so clearly where it belongs. Blacks can see so clearly the way that white people have help them in check, have arranged things in such ways that their ability to transcend poverty and poor education has been even more difficult than it should have been. Whites see so clearly the affirmative action programs that take jobs and college placements out from under them and hand them to blacks whose scores and credentials pale next to their own. Latinos see a country in which not only their skin but their language is a barrier to any kind of success, a country in which white and black alike are out to get them. Blame is just so very easy to fix.

What is not easy is facing the causes and trying to address them. Facing the causes involves admitting that we are each in some measure responsible for this state of affairs. No, we did not create it; it was here long before anyone's great grandparents were born. But we perpetuate it every day that we don't stand up and rail against it. Keeping quiet, pretending it is fine when it most obviously is not, is every bit as much of a problem, Barack Obama tells us, as the racist and incendiary statements made by his former pastor. These are opposite sides of a single coin, and it is a poison currency. Its poison is insidious: it seeps into our souls and our minds if we hold it in our wallets, if we keep it too close, if we don't let it go.

Ironically, then, the very hateful vitriol that spewed from the mouth of Reverend Wright that Obama so correctly condemned can be credited with catalyzing the moment that, thanks to the Senator from Illinois, we now so suddenly find ourselves on the brink of. To rid ourselves of the poison currency, we must spend it. Reverend Wright spends his with (undeniably too much)vigor. Too many of us, holding ours close to the vest, the silent side up, never let it go. Barack Obama told us yesterday that this will not help solve the problem. His challenge to us is to face our fear, to face our complicity in it, to face ourselves. His challenge is to discuss openly what Derrick Ashong called the elephant in America's living room.

It will not be easy. Such things never are. But this is a seminal moment in American history. And if you are completely honest with yourselves, you will know that it is the only true and American thing we can do. But it is not the tactic that committees and advisors would ever come up with. This one comes from the heart. Does anyone seriously want to proffer the argument that, on their best possible days, Hillary Clinton or John McCain would have dared to make a speech like that one? And not only to make it, but to write it as well?

Barack Obama's run to the Presidency began with a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention meant to inspire, and for that he has been labeled by some as all rhetoric, a brilliant speaker but, to cite a retort from a long-ago campaign, "where's the beef?" In Philadelphia, in a 37 minute speech that required all of the audacity and all of the hope that he is capable of, Barack Obama looked America in the eye and showed us that he is here to do far more than to inspire.

He is here to lead.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

obama and ashley: yes he can

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom. She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too. Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

This is the story with which Barack Obama finished his masterful speech on race relations in America today in Philadelphia. After 35 minutes of the most poignant, articulate, personal, and focused discussion of the state of race in this country ever given by any politician, Obama chose to end it with a simple, sweet, quiet story of a small girl doing what she could for a sick mother, that same girl, years later, parlaying that pure spirit into a desire to help whoever she can reach, black or white, rich or poor, and the effect her story has on a single elderly listener.
“I’m here because of Ashley.”

By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children. But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

It is a perfect ending to what I am willing to state is the single greatest speech given by an American politician since the Gettysburg Address. And, as Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic reports, Obama wrote the entire speech himself. To anyone familiar with the powerful prose in his books, this should not come as a shock, but the fact that he felt the need to take on this speech–easily the most important of the campaign–without a speech writer says several things about the man.

First and foremost it proves that in Barack Obama we are getting an articulate President, a glorious change after eight years of the Texas Tongue Twister. But more importantly it shows that Obama is a man who cares deeply about the causes he espouses. This personal speech was not something he was willing to entrust to others. He knew the notes that he needed to hit, and he went out and hit them. He addressed Rev. Wright's heinous comments, once again decrying them but at the same time explaining that the man behind those hateful words is a truly decent man whom he has known for years and whom, he said,
I can no more disown...than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

He spoke eloquently of the history and legacy of bigotry and prejudice that has made people like Rev. Wright learn to hate, but he also spoke with passion and compassion about the similar plight of middle class white people who feel that, through no fault of their own, their jobs, their potential, their very lives are being usurped by society to remunerate people of color for evils committed against them by other people, not by them or anyone they know. He placed the history of race relations in America into a clear and precise context to help us to understand where this struggle comes from.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.

That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities. A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future.

Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their world view in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

Still, he recognized that "a similar anger exists within segments of the white community." The bitterness that often flares up–and has done so again in these past few weeks–stems not from any true hatred but from economic reality. It's not that the Democratic voters of Ohio (who, when they said race had affected their vote, overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton) are necessarily inherently racist. It's that they are frustrated and overwhelmed with a situation they didn't create that, as they see it, gives preferential treatment to those whose skin is darker than theirs.

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

Obama brought both sides of this issue out front, perhaps for the first time in American history. What other politician has ever done that? He also spoke of the fact–and we all know it is a fact though until today we have never admitted it–that each race openly discusses the other when none of its members are present, but that as soon as there is a mixed race group, everyone acts as if the world has become all hunky-dory. And further, he told us that this is not the way we will ever resolve these issues, and without resolving them we cannot resolve issues like health care, the economy, and education.

In fact it is this last aspect that elevates this speech above its own eloquence and turns it into something more than another brilliant Barack Obama standard "damn the man can speak!" moment. Yes, he put race relations into perspective like no one since Martin Luther King, and possibly better even than King himself. Yes, he found an almost perfect balance of empathy for white and black alike in this complex issue, as perhaps one might expect, given that he began his speech by noting his own mixed heritage. But it is in the complicated intertwining of racial issues and other domestic issues that Obama's real genius shines in this speech. By linking all of these things, by making the argument (and making it persuasively) that it is through fostering better understanding between the races that we begin to heal the divide that actually causes many of our social problems, Obama does the impossible. He somehow manages to turn the liability of race into a potential strength.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option.

Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.

This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit. This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

Hillary Clinton has been saying for months that this man is not made of the right stuff to lead the nation, that he cannot handle himself in times of crisis. I think that if you examine the way he has handled himself in the last several weeks, when he has come under increasingly vitriolic and personal attacks, you will find that he handles himself pretty darned well, thank you. Some in the media call him "unflappable," and you know what? I think that's a fairly good attribute to have when that red phone rings at 3 AM. Has anyone used that words to describe Hillary lately?

In this speech, Barack Obama has signaled that he is not only a visionary politician, but a politician who possesses that rare combination of skill, vision, empathy, and the ability to inspire us to try to be the best we can be. He is far more than a guy running on one speech in 2004. He is far more than a guy running on an insubstantial and unsupported message of hope. He is a man with a mission and a very clear idea of how to accomplish it.

The nation has suffered through eight years of a Presidency that has seen record deficits, depletion of natural resources, global warming, an unfathomable and illegal war of choice, the squandering of world sentiment after 9/11, callous disregard for both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, and more arrogance, double-speak, and just plain flat-out lies than I could catalog in a month of blogs. Our country has a cancer. Barack Obama is willing to eat mustard and relish sandwiches if that's what is needed to help eradicate it. In this case, the thin and unfilling sandwich is the national discourse on race, left festering in the dark for far too many years. We need to take it out, examine it, and own it. We need to understand that we have built this. We have made the need. We must pick it up, take a bite, and swallow hard.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm doing it for Ashley. And Barack.


Friday, March 14, 2008

do over

I am not a golfer. Never really understood the inherent pleasure of traipsing around a long park on a hot day, stopping every once in a while to whack with a stick at a little white ball that never did you any harm and having to learn all kinds of exciting and innovative ways of expressing frustration when the shot you have hit suddenly veers left, smashes into a tree, bounces at a 90° angle and plops into an inconveniently located lake. If I want to raise my blood pressure, I've got teenagers for that; I really don't need help from a so-called entertainment.

But there is one aspect of golf that intrigues me. I've heard tell of a tradition in rounds of golf that goes by the name of "Mulligan." Apparently, by invoking this tradition, with the approval of those in the round, you can actually retake a rotten shot with no penalty. Now I may have that wrong, but what a great concept! You line up for a shot, settle in, swing, and absolutely screw it up. Instead of having to deal with the consequences of your awful stroke, with a ball in the woods or the water or the rough or lying two inches from the tee, you take a "Mulligan" and the shot simply never happened: you get to do it over.

Until I heard of "Mulligans," I thought that this notion of "do-overs" was something limited to children's games. You know, you are in a contest–whatever its nature–and there is a dispute about the outcome of a particular play, and neither side will give in, so someone suggests a do-over and that compromise saves the day. If you're playing cards, the hand is redealt. If you're playing basketball, the same team takes the ball inbounds again as if the previous play had not occurred. If you're playing Rock Paper Scissors, two out of three might suddenly become three out of five and blossom into four out of nine before erupting into 10 out of 21 or more. If you make a mistake playing a song on the piano, you simply ask to start again; who is going to say "no"? Do-overs make life much easier.

Apparently we are now living in a political world in which it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a mulligan. In fact, when things do not go according to your desires, you don't merely ask for one; you expect is as your right. You don't like the results the way they are? Simply seek to change the rules after the game has been played. What else is going on in the states of Florida and Michigan, both of which are demanding a mulligan on their primary elections?

Everyone knows the background to this by now: the primary process has traditionally begun with the states of Iowa and New Hampshire and this year added South Caroline and Nevada for ethnic and geographic diversity. Dozens of other states, tired of having the candidates decided before they even get to vote, scrambled to move their primaries forward in the calendar, closer to the traditional starting dates and eventually even before them, forcing the four first states to move their own primaries ever earlier to maintain their primary primacy. At about the time when it appeared that New Hampshire might have to move into December to go first, the Democratic National Committee stepped in to preserve the integrity of the entire campaign. They laid down the law: no state was allowed to move forward beyond the ones that already had. The penalty for doing so would be that state's delegates would not be seated at the National Convention.

All of the candidates signed off on this rule, and all of the states understood it. Forty-eight of the states abided by it. Michigan and Florida did not; both states, despite repeated warnings from the DNC of the punishment they would receive, voted to move their primaries before the "Super Tuesday" cut-off date. Per the rules they had previously laid out, the DNC stripped both states of their delegates. At the time, no one complained; the opportunity to become kingmakers seemed worth the sacrifice. And then a funny thing happened on the way to becoming kingmakers...

First NH and Iowa, wary that the early presence of Big States could pull attention from them, exacted a pledge from all of the candidates that they would not campaign in any state that violated DNC rules. Then, in a further nod to the rules, all of the candidates except for Clinton removed their names from the ballot in Michigan. Both primaries were suddenly reduced from kingmakers to meaningless. No one paid attention to either of them. Millions of voters stayed home since their votes would not be deciding anything anyway. Of the millions who voted anyway, the majority voted for the one candidate any of them had heard of before 2008, Hillary Clinton, since no one had campaigned in their state to introduce the newer names to people in Florida and Michigan. And it seemed as if that was that. The states had gambled and lost.

But then another funny thing happened: months went by, and dozens of other primaries, and still there was no clear winner between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Hillary, who had fallen behind, started making noise that the delegates from Florida and Michigan should be seated after all. They were legitimate primaries, she argued, ignoring the fact that even she had acknowledged their illegitimacy back when the delegate logjam of today was unknowable and she was the foreordained frontrunner, simply awaiting Super Tuesday for her official coronation. And the governors and legislators of these states–the very same people who voted to flout the DNC rules last year and move these primaries up, knowing what the consequences would be–now whine and proclaim to anyone who will listen (and lots of people are listening) that their states and their voters are being "disenfranchised," that their votes are being discounted, stolen from them. These votes, they say, must count; anything else would simply not be fair.

I'm reminded of another ritual of game playing: setting the ground rules. It's probably something we all remember in one way or another, whether it is the universal understanding that a ball hit into the neighbor's garden is a home run, or the acknowledgment that in this game deuces and one eyed jacks are wild. It's critical for playing any game at all: if we are not all playing by the same rules, the game quickly devolves into chaos.

And Clinton and the elected officials of two states that knowingly chose to flout the rules now argue that we should throw that rulebook out in the late stages of the game. We should simply ignore their previous insubordination and either seat the delegates according to the results of two "elections" in which no one campaigned and many didn't bother to vote because, at the time, all were under the impression that the "elections" were for showcase only, or award these states the opportunity to conduct do-overs, give them both mulligans and let them hold new primaries the first week of June, erasing their previous misguided efforts and, in the process, giving both of them exactly what they sought in the first place: almost absolute sway in the election.

Is this what Clinton and the state officials think is "fair"? That they should be rewarded for breaking the rules? Because I don't see anything at all fair about it, and before they go opening up that particular door, the DNC had better consider the precedent it would be setting: this would be the ultimate mulligan, the ultimate do-over. It would tell all states in the future: go ahead, flout the rules; you can always have your say later on. No, the only truly fair thing to do is to play by the rules everyone agree to when the game began. Michigan and Florida violated the rules; a punishment was prescribed for that violation. Quid pro quo. And if, in paean to the voters of two states important to the Democratic Party, the DNC decides it ought to seat delegations, since it was the greedy politicians and not the voters who caused the disenfranchisement, the most fair thing to do would be to take both states' delegations and split them down the middle: 50% for Clinton, 50% for Obama. No one gains, no one loses, both states are fully represented, neither state is rewarded for breaking the rules. No one will think it a perfect solution, which is absolute evidence that it is one.

This has become a distraction for the Democrats, along with everything else that has gotten in the way of the message they should be hitting hard every single day: voting for John McCain is voting for the continuation of the failed policies of the worst President in the history of the United States. McCain embraces Bush's policies almost wholly, even the ones he previously had despised. Watching him wriggle about on the question of waterboarding made me cringe; it was as if the man had sold his soul for this opportunity. At least he had one to sell. I'm not so sure about the current Resident. If the Democratic candidates don't stop their lunatic character assassination tactics, particularly Hillary Clinton, as Barack Obama has refused time and time again to go into the gutter with her (though biting remarks he has made show him perfectly able to do so), the McBush administration might just come to pass.

It takes a village, Hillary once said, to raise a child. In the race for the nomination, it seems that it takes a village idiot to commit the kind of political harikiri that the Democrats seem bent on committing. Is it too late for the Democratic Party to ask Hillary Clinton to take a mulligan for the entire last month and for her and and Barack Obama to get a do-over?


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

geraldine, we hardly knew ye

Until the last several days, the name Geraldine Ferraro was, for the most part, a pleasant footnote in political history. The first woman to be a part of a major party ticket, she was plucked from obscurity by Walter Mondale and made his running mate in his disastrous campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984. The congresswoman had previously not been a particularly spectacular legislator, and she faded into the woodwork fairly convincingly once the electoral debacle was over, seemingly content to return to the obscurity whence she had come. Still, her name had become synonymous with the hope that someday in this country we might finally be able to look past the absurd veneers of gender and even skin color to see the potential leader within. Geraldine Ferraro, by her own admission, had done little to deserve her place in history. ("If I have said it once, I have said it 20, 60, 100 times -- in 1984, if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been the nominee for vice president," she recently said in an interview.) But she has it nonetheless.

It's been a lovely and secure place, her place in history. All she had to do was go about her business and attend to the jobs she was undertaking, and no matter how little else in the world she ever did, Geraldine Ferraro would always be fondly recalled as the woman who broke a major political barrier. But this week, Geraldine Ferraro apparently decided that knowing that one thing about her was not enough for the history books. Some insane notion whirred around in her head and declared that being a figure of historical significance was not cutting it anymore. Nope. And, though practically no one outside of Washington has even thought to wonder what has become of Geraldine Ferraro in the past two decades, she was apparently tired of the obscurity of being the elder stateswoman in a party that was passing her by.

Or maybe I'm giving her too much credit. Maybe she just shot her mouth off without thinking at all. Maybe there was no design whatsoever. It really doesn't matter. Whatever the reason, Geraldine Ferraro, acting as a financial volunteer with the Clinton campaign, started spouting an argument about the Obama candidacy to everyone who would listen. And since the press enjoys the jollity of interviewing has-been politicians who might just say something interesting, people did listen. And what she said was widely reported. And it was, sadly, a very ugly thing for someone in her position to be saying, or even thinking.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

Now I happen to be an English teacher, so please indulge me while I take a moment to analyze that bit of prose. The first line, "If Obama was a white man," aside from being grammatically incorrect (ignoring the subjunctive mood), drops the race card front and center in bold lettering and then goes on to claim that it is the sole reason that Obama is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. "He would not be in this position" if he were white, she says. One assumes that he would be laboring in obscurity somewhere, doing something less interesting, like, say, whatever Geraldine Ferraro has been up to for the last twenty years. (She is a lawyer and a lobbyist. Before that, she was a Congresswoman. I remember all of the landmark legislation with her sponsoring name attached, taking advantage of the celebrity that came with that historical White House run. Don't you?)

OK, then, after belittling Obama as the candidate of color, the man who somehow has amassed 1600 delegates because, gee, he's black so let's give him a bunch, Ferraro goes on. "And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position." (Gosh darn subjunctive mood again.) Ah, apparently the argument has more facets than at first it seemed. Interesting...

"He happens to be very lucky to be who he is." Right. Because an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama, raised partly in Muslim Indonesia, is exactly the candidate that the majority of this country would have imagined had they been given a "build your perfect president" kit. Yup. All he had to do to gain the Presidency was show up.

"And the country is caught up in the concept." You know what? I'm going to have to agree with Congresswoman Ferraro on this one. The country is "caught up in the concept" of Barack Obama becoming President, but not because he is black. Oh, that might be a nice aspect of it, but other than the heavy percentages of black voters he rounds up at every stage of the race (just as Hillary finds that–goodness!–she attracts a lot of women voters) people are voting for him not because he is black but because he represents something they have not truly felt for a long time: hope. Of course, that's not what Ferraro meant: she meant that we have provided him with a mathematically insurmountable lead because of some Presidential racial quota system. (Apparently we've just figured out that one out of every 44 Presidents ought to be black.)

Ferraro claims that she meant nothing racist in her statements, but it's difficult to see any other way to interpret them, especially when you place them side by side with a similar statement that she made back in 1988 about another African-American candidate: “If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn’t be in the race." (Yes! She got the subjunctive down! Hmmm... Maybe she's lost some brain cells since '88...maybe she could blame the latest furor on that...) And when you place it all in context of other remarks that have been coming from the Clinton campaign–whether it has been the blatant racism of some of her supporters or her own "subtle" "as far as I know" response about his alleged Muslim background, there does appear to be a pattern that warrants the word I used in the beginning: ugly.

In class today I was introducing one of Sophocles' Theban Plays. In doing so, I explained the story of what occurred between Oedipus' fall and the start of Antigone. Two brothers both believed that they deserved to sit on the throne of Thebes once they came of age. They made the decision to do something completely radical for ancient Greece: job-share. Eteocles would get the first year as King, then step down and allow Polynices to become King for a year. They would rotate this way, each getting a year as King: the epitome of fairness. When they came of age, their Uncle Creon, who had been the Regent, relinquished leadership to Eteocles, who was crowned King, but as his year drew to a close he came to believe that it was not in Thebes' best interest to follow through on the agreement he had made with his brother. He felt that the stability of a single recognized ruler would be better, and (as King) he had the right to do whatever he chose. So he told his brother that the deal was off, and Polynices, naturally, was very upset. He accused his brother of doing this not to benefit Thebes, but to benefit Eteocles...and who is to say he was wrong?

Anyway, Eteocles was King and Polynices felt ripped off from his rightful position. He could have, in the interest of peace in the kingdom, supported his brother as a key adviser. Instead, he left Thebes, excoriating his brother as he went, traveled to far-off lands, raised a mercenary army, and came back to attack his brother and take by force what he felt he should have been given as his due. It no longer mattered to Polynices how he got the throne, or even what condition Thebes was in once he got it; all that mattered was that he defeated the man who had what he believed should have belonged to him.

The armies met and fought in a bloody war, and eventually the two brothers met face to face on the battlefield and killed each other, leaving a broken, bleeding city with grievous losses and no heir.

As I described this to my class today, I couldn't help thinking about the parallels between the Theban civil war and the Democratic primary race. As the Clinton campaign goes more and more negative, or allows others to do so on its behalf without challenge or denouncement, I can't help wondering what it is that they are hoping to accomplish. Like Polynices, they have no realistic hope at this point of achieving their goal without bringing down the entire party. By tearing at Obama every chance she gets, Hillary raises his negatives (the evidence is the opinion of her own supporters in exit polls taken in the Mississippi primary), arms John McCain with the most glorious sound bites a Republican candidate has ever had at his disposal, and rips ever wider the schism she has opened within a Democratic Party that was, for once, the party of optimism and hope and rebirth.

Before both Clinton and Obama lie broken and bleeding in the streets, the madness has to stop. Before Hillary Clinton joins Geraldine Ferraro as a ground-breaking female politician who ultimately showed herself to be petty and ugly and not at all the icon she hoped history to record, the madness has to stop. Before John McCain strolls into the third George Bush term over the decaying carcasses of hopes and dreams destroyed by politicians who could not see or would not allow themselves to see what they were doing until it is too late, the madness has to stop.

If we must continue this campaign, then do so with an eye toward the bigger picture: whoever wins (and it will be Obama, no matter what spin the Clinton folks attempt to put on things) has to face a fall election against the first moderate (no matter what he calls himself) Republican in ages, a man who is likable, even if he is completely and utterly wrong. It is imperative that the Democrat wins in November. What Hillary Clinton needs to start realizing is that it is not imperative who that Democrat is.


Monday, March 10, 2008

where the hot air whips across the plain

What makes people hate? A 0.24 second Google search of the word "hate" with "safesearch on" (supposedly eliminating sites that could be harmful in some way, not that hate in itself isn't harmful) turned up almost 25 million hits. That's 25,000,000 sites dealing with hate found by this search engine in a fraction of a second. It's obvious empirical evidence–as if we needed it in a world where vitriol and animosity seem to fill our newspapers and airwaves constantly–that there is far too much hatred going around.

This morning I had the distinct non-pleasure of discovering yet another home-grown example of American hatred at its finest. It comes from the great state of Oklahoma, the state that proclaims that everything is OK, but apparently means that it is OK only of you happen to be straight and Christian (and fundamentalist Christian at that).

In the past weeks, Oklahoma's legislature has been very busy making news. Unsuccessful in instituting a tough law prohibiting adoption by gay couples (which was overturned by the courts) and only two years removed from passing a law that urges libraries to remove gay-themed books, the OkieDokie House of Representatives decided last week to try to instill its high moral standards on the teenagers of the state in some way that, it figured, might pass Constitutional muster.

Of course, the legislators of Oklahoma have never actually read the Constitution, or so I am left to presume from their repeated end-arounds and efforts to outwit its language. This time, targeting not gays per se but the too-accepting culture that gives them the freedom to, well, exist, the good legislators came up with a law that, on its surface, is difficult to argue with. I've read the bill. It purports to be a "Student Religious Freedom" bill, but as the Edmund Sun reports, it is precisely "the opposite":

The bill requires public schools to guarantee students the right to express their religious viewpoints in a public forum, in class, in homework and in other ways without being penalized. If a student’s religious beliefs were in conflict with scientific theory, and the student chose to express those beliefs rather than explain the theory in response to an exam question, the student’s incorrect response would be deemed satisfactory, according to this bill.

The school would be required to reward the student with a good grade, or be considered in violation of the law. Even simple, factual information such as the age of the earth (4.65 billion years) would be subject to the student’s belief, and if the student answered 6,000 years based on his or her religious belief, the school would have to credit it as correct. Science education becomes absurd under such a situation.

Indeed it does. The bill's purpose is not to promote religious freedom; it is to espouse a fundamentalist point of view. It is designed to allow students the freedom to speak out in favor of their religious beliefs, which the legislators imagined would mean scores of students excoriating the evil members of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools across the state. Of course, though, in doing so it opens a nearly ridiculous can of worms, as the Sun points out. A similar bill in Texas has already caused a traffic jam of lawsuits resulting from students speaking in assemblies–with their right of expression–in favor not of accepting Christ into their souls but of seeing Nature as the highest Good (Wicca) or other unusual religions. And, of course, decrying the allegedly Biblical justification for the mistreatment of homosexuals.

Bad law. Bad legislators. But there is one among them who is not just bad but utterly loony. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma representative, has a hit video on youtube. You can watch it if you'd like, right here. In her clandestinely recorded diatribe, the clearly well-researched Ms. Kern claims that gays will "destroy this nation" and are a "bigger threat, even more so than terrorists or Islam," to our country. I am stunned by this news, as I have not seen the evidence before of gay sleeper cells setting themselves up to destroy us. I try to imagine what will happen when they strike, but all that comes to mind is a nationwide episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

It's a very real threat, Ms. Kern swears, apparently based on personal experience, considering the vociferousness of her speech and the forcefulness of her opinion. "As a matter of fact, studies show that no society that has embraced homosexuality has lasted more than a few decades," she said. "It's the death knell of this country."

Ms. Kern goes on to argue, among other things,

"You know why they're trying to get early childhood education? They want to get our young children into government schools so they can indoctrinate them. They're going after our young children, as young as two in age, to try to teach them that the homosexual lifestyle is acceptable."

Of course! That's where the gay sleeper cells are! Pre-schools! Now I understand SpongeBob. And Tinky Winky.

Kern says we need to act now to stop this horrible threat to our nation's very existence. Too may people, she fears, are ignoring it. She lists a whole series of city councils–oh. my. god.–that have been overrun by homosexuals already. They are everywhere!

"If you've got cancer in your little toe, do you say, 'Well, you know, I'm going to forget about it because the rest of me is fine?' It spreads, and this stuff is deadly. It's spreading, and it will destroy our young people."

In the Great State of Oklahoma, where the young people have a legislative body trying to protect them from being adopted by loving gay couples and demanding the absurd divisiveness of pure religious freedom of expression in schools, and where they have champions like Sally Kern fighting to save them from the "deadly" cancer of Al Gayda, I feel certain that they have nothing at all to fear.

As long as they find a way to get the hell out of there.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

to infinity and beyond (thanks, al)

So I was surfing around the web, reading opinions on the election, and I ran into one from Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld. In it, he opined that, if Obama really wants to counter the infamous "3 AM" commercial, he should run a montage of the many personalities (he called them "Sybillish") that Clinton has exhibited during the campaign with the tag line, "Does anyone want this nut answering the phone?"

I have to admit that, when I looked at the collage of images here (credited to, I laughed out loud. I mean, come on! Some of these photos are completely hilarious...and no pun at all is intended there. ;-) (Oh, think about it!)

My favorite line is the second from the top: priceless! She goes from exhausted to deathly serious to happy to I-don't-know-what to I-don't-even-want-to-know-what to how-wide-can-I-get-my-mouth-open to two versions of I-can-hold-this -overdone-smile-as-long-as-the-camera-is-on-me. It's perfect. I'm still laughing.

But I'm not writing to make fun of Hillary Clinton's ultra-expressive face; no, actually that's not a bad thing at all, just a stark contrast to Barack Obama's unflappable one. (His smile, though, when he gives it, is the most sincere and perfect one I think I've ever seen on a politician. But that's another story.) No, I just found the images fun, so I wanted to share.

That's the internet's most incredible joy: finding things that you want to share. I have this feature on my browser called "StumbleUpon" that takes me, when I click it, to completely random new sites (based on criteria I selected when I signed up for it). I've found many wonderful, interesting, unusual, even hypnotically beautiful places online that way. And I've found many outrageously funny sites as well. Some I might have found myself eventually; some, though I might never even have thought to look for. Just now I clicked it and ended up on a site called "Hunkin's Experiments" and learned, among other things, how to make a box of quicksand. (You never know when that sort of thing could come in handy!)

Here's another: I learned that the all-time winner for most mistakes in one movie is Apocalypse Now with 396 mistakes! Random sampling:

Captain Willard picks up one of the death cards that Lieutenant Kilgore threw on a dead body and it's the seven of hearts. This is not one of the cards that Kilgore threw down though. As he was naming each one as he threw it and Captain Willard was walking close behind him

Audio problem: Lance is singing while he's in the water with Chief Phillips' body and his lips do not match his vocalizing.

Continuity: As Captain Willard tries to get Chief Phillips to stop the men from firing he says, "They're just little sticks. They're just trying to scare us". Watch the Captain's left hand closely as his rifle becomes arrows between shots.

I love this stuff!

Anyway, the internet is full of small finds like these. And it is full of utterly joyous ones like this:

It's also a good way to keep in touch. I have re-established contact on Facebook with dozens of former students, some from over two decades ago. One, now a professor of biology at Butler University, messaged me to ask if I knew a young man whom she had seen in a college play. He had listed my town in his bio. Yep, he was one of mine. With the net, it really is a small world.

I spend a lot of time here, but I hesitate to say that I "waste" it. It's only a waste if nothing useful comes from it, and that simply is not the case. Too many people of my generation don't understand what there is out here in cyberspace. What I've found is pretty simple: out here there is infinity, and it's waiting to be discovered.


Monday, March 3, 2008

give up or cowboy up?

I just read an article that says that Rush Limbaugh, the Great Pompous Fool of the Lunatic Right, is imploring his listeners (and I must pause here to wonder aloud why on earth he still has any) to abandon their principles and vote for Hillary Clinton because it would prolong the Democratic race, which he believes is inevitably Obama's to win, and because he sees her as the GOP's secret weapon in that she is more willing to attack Barack than McCain is.

I suppose this makes just about as much sense as anything else Rush Limbaugh has ever said (which is to say about as much sense as one would expect from a self-appointed crusader of morality and truth...and prescription drug abuser). But I don't really want to write about what a self-righteous egomaniac Rush Limbaugh is. Al Franken already did that. (See Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.) Or don't. That's up to you. But what interests me the most about the story is that it echoes calls from within the Democratic Party: not that Hillary Clinton should continue to divide the party, but rather that she should do exactly the opposite.

It began in earnest with her husband, President Bill Clinton, who should get a Gold Star some time from President Obama for his role in the Obama campaign. Has there been any other single high placed person who has done more to steer votes to Obama than Hillary's hubby? I respected the man as a President and even as a former President, but as a husband on the campaign trail, let's face it, he's all ego. He's done nothing but hurt his wife's chances. And now he comes out and says if she doesn't win big in both Texas and Ohio it's all over; well isn't that Obama's argument to make? (Ridiculously, her campaign is trying to reverse that now, saying that it's Obama who needs to win both states, but that's another story.) Anyway, Bill really should just get out of Hillary's way, find himself a nice intern, and shut himself up in a log cabin somewhere until the election is over.

But the genie is out of the bottle, and the thought has been echoed by people in her own campaign and by Big Shots in her own party. If she loses one or both of these big states she led by 15-20% just two weeks ago, should she pull out? Should she pull out, in the name of party unity, even if she wins but does little to dent Obama's delegate lead? If she comes out of tomorrow's primaries in much the same shape (or worse) than she is now, she could be facing a future of needing to win significantly more than 60% of the remaining delegates to defeat Obama: not impossible, but highly unlikely. And I hate to even utter these words, but Rush does have a point in that vast rumbling wasteland of a head of his: the longer she remains in the race, the longer she hands the GOP attack machine, which is so successful without any help, additional weaponry.

Still, this is a woman who has been running for this job for a very long time. It could be argued that she had her sights on it long before she even married Bill; certainly she knew when she stayed with him, reinventing herself as she needed to while First Lady, that she was prepping for her own run. Few people, even back then, would have been surprised to find her as a candidate today. And she is a woman with every bit as much ego as her husband, and every bit as much drive. Probably much more. So if she gains only a little or holds steady or slips further behind tomorrow, what will she do? Will she give up her dream and return to the Senate, where she is making a difference for so many? Or will she, in the phrase made popular by the 2004 Red Sox, "cowboy up"? Down 3-0 in a best of seven series to the arch-rival Yankees, the self-declared "idiots" on the Sox figured, what the heck do we have to lose now? Jump on the darned horse and ride! And for the first time in the history of the major leagues, they came back from that deficit to win the series and then went on to become World Champions.

I'm a supporter of Barack Obama, and I do think that it would be in the best interest of the party if Hillary Clinton, should she find herself tomorrow night in a similar spot vis a vis Obama to the one she is in now, courteously threw in the towel. But I have to say that I look at that woman and I see someone who knows herself and her ideals, knows and believes in her heart that she can do this job and should be given the chance, and (to use her husband's phrase) feels the pain of an America that has been dumped on by seven years of this absolutely outrageous Presidency. If she decides to jump on the horse and ride as long as she can stay up, who really can blame her?


Saturday, March 1, 2008

the argument

Years ago I was taking a creative writing class at the University of Scotland in Edinburgh, and one of the assignments we had was to find a partner and compose an argument. We were not to use any narrative; this was supposed to be an argument in dramatic form: two characters sitting around bitchin'.

So I got together with this twenty-something girl named Kacie. Almost all of the other grad students I hung around with that summer were much younger than I, possibly due to the fact that I was feeling pretty vibrant myself despite my rapidly advancing years: on my own in Europe for the summer for the first time in my life, I felt sort of bohemian. If bohemians had iPods and credit cards.

Kacie and I sat down to figure out the assignment. How to write an argument. One thing we both knew was that written language and spoken language are not the same thing, so if we wanted it to sound "real" then we would have to edit what truly might be real. But that was not our problem: it was what to argue about. We know that we would just actually have the argument and then work out how to write it, but a topic eluded us.

Then one of us thought of the characters from Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot, two hopeless and hapless vagabonds who spend what appears to be every day of their lives waiting in endless anticipation of the arrival of someone named Godot, whose magical appearance will resolve something in their lives, though neither really has the foggiest clue what that something might be. Godot, of course, will never arrive, and the two will just continue to wait and wait, hoping (whenever it occurs to their addled brains to consider hoping) that Godot will arrive soon to make everything better. The play ends as it began, with the two of them doing absolutely nothing but waiting for an event that will, we are certain, never come.

What if we had that kind of argument? we thought. What if our argument was of such inane and trivial nonsense that it actually did little more than take up valuable space in the continuum of our lives? And then, after it was through, those lives went on as if the argument had never even occurred?

What follows is the script of what Kacie and I came up with that afternoon. It's silly and stupid, but we enjoyed ourselves. Maybe you will too.

The Argument

Karen So...what should we argue about?

Kacie Why should we argue?

Karen That was our assignment. To write an argument.

Kacie No, it wasn’t.

Karen Yes, it was.

Kacie No, it wasn’t.

Karen Well, let’s argue anyway.

Kacie About what?

Karen That’s what I asked you.

Kacie No you didn’t.

Karen Yes, I did!

Kacie I don’t want to argue about anything.

Karen What do you want to do?

Kacie I want to talk about how the world began.

Karen How the world began?

Kacie Yeah, you know, how God created the Earth and all the people in it.

Karen Well, for starters, how do we know that God had anything to do with it?

Kacie Well, we exist, don’t we?

Karen That doesn’t mean that God put us here.

Kacie Yes it does.

Karen No it doesn’t!

Kacie Then how would you explain it?

Karen I don’t have to explain it. I’m not proposing anything specific. All I’m saying is that we can’t know what happened millions of years ago with any certainty.

Kacie What does a million years ago have to do with anything?

Karen What do you mean?

Kacie We’re talking about when the world began.

Karen And the people.

Kacie And the people. What does a million years ago have to do with it?

Karen Well, maybe a billion years.

Kacie Now you’re talking crazy. We haven’t been around that long.

Karen Yes we have!

Kacie No, we haven’t!

Karen Yes, we have!

Kacie Uh uh. Don’t think so.

Karen OK, then, how long HAVE we been around?

Kacie Just a few thousand years, at the most.

Karen What?

Kacie Show me a family tree that goes back for millions of years.

Karen Family trees don’t go back that far!

Kacie Exactly.

Karen No, no, no. Family trees are modern inventions, just in the era of the written word.

Kacie How do you know? Were you around a million years ago to watch family trees not being there?

Karen That’s just silly!

Kacie No it isn’t.

Karen Yes it is. And stop just contradicting me. This isn’t a Monty Python sketch!

Kacie How do you know?

Karen Can we get back to the argument?

Kacie What argument?

Karen KACIE!

Kacie OK. If family trees have only been around since the written word, how do you know that people even existed before then?

Karen There is archeological evidence.

Kacie Evidence about what?

Karen Dead people.

Kacie So?

Karen So they were alive a million years ago.

Kacie Just because they are dead now doesn’t mean they lived a million years ago.

Karen The scientists have dated the bones with C14 dating.

Kacie That’s not reliable.

Karen It’s not off by millions of years!

Kacie It could be. Just because no one has proven them wrong doesn’t make them right.

Karen I think Darwin would have something to say about that.

Kacie Monkey Man!

Karen Be serious.

Kacie Well, HE wasn’t.

Karen Who?

Kacie Darwin.

Karen What about him?

Kacie He wasn’t serious.

Karen Yes he was!

Kacie You’re telling me to rely on the word of a man who thinks his great-great grandmother was a monkey.

Karen Not his great-great grandmother. Much further back than that.

Kacie Oh, excuse me! Great-great-great-great---

Karen OK, I get the point. You don’t believe in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Kacie I didn’t say that.

Karen So you do believe in it?

Kacie Nope.

Karen Well...

Kacie Well what?

Karen Maybe we should find a topic for that argument.

Kacie What argument?

Karen Our assignment!

Kacie We didn’t have one.

Karen Yes we did.

Kacie No we didn’t.

Karen I give up.

Kacie You can’t do that.

Karen Yes I can.

Kacie No you can’t.

Karen Fine. Let’s argue then.

Kacie OK.

They sit there.


it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and