Cutting Through The Crap

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The War On Terror


On this blog, and on my previous one, I've stated more than once that I think (although I didn't put it exactly this way) the central front in the "war on terror" is in the hands of law enforcement. In saying it, I also noted that John Kerry, when he ran in 2004, was laughed off the stage by the wingnuts when he said as much. From which, based on how often those voices have been wrong on pretty much everything including war, economics, and terrorism (as well as science, religion, energy, climate...), one might have instantly concluded that Kerry was absolutely right. Which he was, of course. Another blogger reinforces the concept.

I wonder how long the boys in the back room worked on the title. War on Terror. Given their affinity for style over substance, they must have taken a while to get it right. If your aim is to mandate unending war powers to a president while getting the populace to fall into line, you surely don't want a closed-ended moniker. We gotta give the guy permanent license, after all. Even "terrorism" could, conceivably, have an end-point. But terror -- TERROR!! -- who could argue that'll ever go away?

It'll be interesting to see what happens to the "war" (as opposed to the "wars") in the Obama administration. Even Donald Rumsfeld, at one time anyway, seemed a little uncomfortable with the name; so did others on the inside. I think it might take a while before Obama feels able to call it like it is. After a campaign in which he was cast as an America-hating, terrorist-loving, closet Muslim, for him immediately to point out the real nature of the response to terrorist threats would be to invite craziness from the right. But at some point one would hope it'll happen. For at least two reasons.

If we're engaged in a War on Terror, we'll never stop being a "nation at war." Which has been the engine for the Bush/Cheney takeover of government in which Congress, and the rest of us for that matter, have been complicit. ("I'm a war president.") And it's been a central justification for deficit spending way before Wall Street went South. We need to get real. When (if!!) we're able either to disengage or change the missions in Iraq and Afganistan, it'll need to be clearly stated: we'll always have to make significant efforts to protect ourselves from terrorism, but it'll not be primarily a military effort: not with invading armies, anyway.

Which gets to the meat of it: when (if?) the economy gets back on track, it'll be time to attend to gargantuan budget deficits. Nothing ought to be off that celebrated table. Angst ought to be engendered from both ends of the spectrum. Entitlements. And, for the right wing, military spending. This War on Terror, as ginned up and executed by Cheney/Bush, has been nearly the financial death of us. I hope Barack Obama will be able to address military spending; to do so, he'll have to make the case and convince the electorate what is and is not sensible in making ourselves safe. No military economist, I; but I'd say there are billions and billions to be saved.

[Update: The NYT weighs in.]

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

PTSD



I'm so far from expert on the subject that I probably ought not bring it up. But I read this article this morning, about a four-star general revealing his psychological difficulties on returning home from Iraq (to a base right down the road from here). Despite increased awareness of the problem, it's my impression that there remains, in the military, denial at best and denigration at worst, aimed at those who suffer combat stress. So I admire the guy for putting it out there. As far as I know, he's the first flag officer to do so.

I'm certain there's a broad spectrum, and the extremity of one's experience must be the biggest factor; but there's preparation, support, and maybe internal mechanisms for coping, all of which affect the ultimate outcome. That there should be residual mental effects of spending time at war ought not to be surprising. In fact, I'd say it ought to be assumed in all cases. We ask people -- especially the young and less-than-fully educated -- for a year or so to abandon civilization, to learn to kill, to accept "collateral" casualties, to live in constant touch with death and the possibility of death; and then we expect them to return home and resume normality like putting on a pair of pants.

In Vietnam, I had it relatively good. I never held a rifle (when I flew, I had a pistol in my survival vest, along with a silk cloth printed in several languages with a guarantee of reward in return for help, and a rubber-sheathed hacksaw, suitable for hiding where the sun don't shine), always slept in a bed, ate warm food. Dubbed -- for cause -- "Rocket City", Da Nang Air Base was a constant target of rocket attacks. They rained in more nights than not, and sometimes during daytime. I lived in "Gunfighter Village," home of all the pilots, right alongside the flight line, which was a prime target. On the other hand, the rockets were aimed mostly by leaning them onto a tripod of dirt and crossed bamboo and fired off in our general direction. (Symbolic of the insanity of the whole war, the rockets were often set up in "friendly villages," which, by definition, meant GIs couldn't do anything to take them down without permission from the village chief, who'd be killed if he gave it. In the daily security briefings we officers received, we'd be told where they were coming from and how many to expect.)

In they came, regularly. Far enough away, the sound was a whump, often associated with a physical (real, or imagined?) sensation in the torso, as if from a subwoofer at a rock concert. They'd come in groups, "walking" closer, and as they did, the thump would evolve into a crash.

It was a big base. The odds for a given individual were pretty good, and that was consoling. My number came uppish once, when my barracks was hit. With only minimal injuries, I tended to others -- one with part of his shoulder blown away, into the hole of which I stuffed a tee shirt -- before getting attention myself. Being the only doc living out there with the pilots -- the others were together in the "medical hootch," a jeep or ambulance ride away -- it fell on me with every attack to don a helmet and a flack vest and run to the clinic while Cobra helicopters thwacked the air overhead and fired their gatling guns into the jungle at 6- or 700 rounds per minute, tracers lighting the night. Trotting awkwardly, trying to be low to the ground, it was too surreal to be entirely scary. I never could quite believe it was me.

Here's my point: as comfortable as my circumstances were, as different from the experience of the guys out there in the jungle, sleeping in muck, killing and being killed, it had an effect on me. I still hate the sound of helicopters; every time I hear a military jet (a Navy air base is not far from here) it reminds me of the ambient sounds of Da Nang. As does a certain kind of siren, sounding like the rocket warnings we'd hear a few seconds before the first one hit. In my case, that's about it: no nightmares, no (increase in my usual) depression, no difficulty returning to normal life when I got home. Just an occasional memory, triggered by particularly disliked sounds.

But neither was it entirely negligible. In me: educated, self-aware, well-supported, minimally exposed.

Money is tight, and will be tighter. I'd hope Barack Obama has the guts to take on military spending (Item one: the missile defense shield! Then maybe a few overseas bases). But one thing that must not be cut -- in fact ought to receive more money -- is care of vets coming home. This other report from today's news shows how, for the outgoing administration, "support our troops" has been a load of horse shit.

Poor Joe

No, I don't mean this guy. I'm thinking about poor Joe Biden. As I watched the rollout of the Obama economic team, whereas I think they all must have wondered why they had to be standing there mute, Biden seemed particularly forlorn. Maybe I was projecting.

The President-elect did begin his announcement by saying "Vice-President-elect Biden and I are proud to introduce..." But I found myself feeling sorry for ol' Joe, and wondering what he was thinking. Second fiddle? Is he regretting signing on? Now that it seems Hillary will be Secretary of State, Joe might be seeing his potential foreign policy input frittering away, and the economy was never his bag. On the other hand, there's clearly so much that needs doing, I figure -- hoping, at least -- that he has worked out a clear role in advance, more than just the promised once a week meeting.

I've always liked him. A bloviator, a sticker-of-foot in mouth: still, I find his Joeness awkwardly charming and -- to the extent that any politician is -- a straight talker. Smart, and knowledgable; a rare combination of taking himself very seriously and not seriously at all.

So I hope he's okay. [Update: here's an article on the very subject, appearing in the NYT Online, after I posted this.]

And while we're on the subject of the economic team, I couldn't help thinking about all the election rhetoric claiming how extreme Obama is, the most liberal, a Marxist; inexperienced, not ready to lead... Yet there he was, assembling a team of highly qualified, experienced, respected, non-ideological pragmatists. Taking charge, confident, serious. For one thing, I felt vindicated, having argued here -- and with certain skeptical friends -- that he'd be much more solutions-oriented than blindly "liberal." How refreshing. How reassuring. How needed, how recently missing.

But I recall eight years ago: the "MBA presidency." "The adults are back in charge." And look where that took us. On the other hand, at that time it was mostly Bush and his acolytes saying that stuff. Now, it seems to be everyone.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Boggled



I saw the guy behind this ad on a news show this morning. Key (paraphrased) quote: We need people to oppose the anti-American policies of Barack Obama. And thanks to Sarah for "representing" us real people.

I'm of two minds. The nomination and subsequent lionization of Sarah Palin by many on the right says nothing but depressing things about the nature of a broad swath of American politics. Atmospherics over ability. Connection based on, well, connection.

On the other hand, much as I think (in theory) that as a nation we're better off with an opposition party of quality, if Sarah Palin really is the preferred candidate of the right wing -- whom I find highly repugnant in their theocratic tendencies, for their permanent campaign based on divisiveness and negativity and demonization and extremism -- I say to them, "Go for it!!" Enjoy your life in the shadows.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Together?



If it's reasonable to draw any conclusions about the meaning of electing Barack Obama, the central one might be that enough people said "enough!" Time to get to work; time to focus on issues rather than politics. That's what I had in mind, anyway.

So the question is, will congressional Republicans rise to the occasion? Will enough of them work with Democrats -- and will Democrats include them -- to the extent that party can be put aside while we work our way out of the many messes in which we find ourselves? Signals from the right are at best, mixed.

Regarding that last link: it's my impression that for mangy Mitch, obstruction has become his mantra. For its own sake. Nor has it faded from my memory -- as it seems to have from his -- that in the first years of the Bush administration (the very term puts the "moron" in "oxymoron"), when Republicans controlled the ball, they made a point of NOT including Democrats in any significant way. And, oh yeah, the Republicans -- who filibustered legislation in the last two years more than any group in any congress in history -- screamed bloody murder back then whenever the Dems threatened or used the filibuster.

To be a politician, you have to have the ability to say a thing and later say the opposite, not only without hesitation but without the least sense of irony. It defines the subspecies.

Time will tell. I do think Obama continues to signal a desire to include everyone; and it's already clear, by way of appointments so far, that he intends to surround himself with brilliant people who are not ideologues. I wonder how long it will be -- if it ever even happens -- before those who characterized him as the "most liberal Senator," a Marxist/socialist/terrorist/Muslim/America-hater will notice? Might be a while.

Even so, I'm cautiously optimistic. Results will speak for themselves. And it will be a survival test for the crazy-talk wing of the right wing: if no crisis is too great; if there is no national need that could ever justify putting aside reactionary rhetoric, then a successful Obama administration might -- as a welcome side-effect -- put their brand of idiocy out of business. And, given the numbers, it'll only require a couple of decent conservatives to make it happen.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rooskies


Having studied it for several years, there was a time when I was a pretty good speaker of the Russian language. Better, in fact, than a number of high school teachers of it who were fellow participants in a language study tour of the Soviet Union during the summer of 1963. (If I may be self-indulgent for a moment -- what, a blogger? -- I'd add that I was complemented frequently, while there, on the authenticity of my accent, about which I took a modicum of pride, большое спасибо.) But that's not my point.

Even as a naive college sophomore, international politics-wise, it was apparent to me that the Soviet system was built on sand. Housed in huge and ugly buildings, squeezed into small apartments furnished sparsely and with modest and poorly-functioning appliances, citizens wore drab clothes, stood in pulsing crowds forming chaotic lines to purchase goods (worse: you first worked your way to a display to decide what you wanted and learn its price, then fought another crushing crowd to pay and get a receipt, then back to fighting your way to get the product with your ticket...), and worked in deteriorating and inefficient factories. What kept them going, what facilitated their acceptance of their lot, was everywhere: the government-promoted fear and hatred of America. Posters, slogans, billboards, singing it loud. There's nothing like an omnipresent enemy to let a government do what it wants, and have the people toe the line.

I mention this because of an column in today's New York Times, by which it seems we're back to square one:

[At] "a Halloween-themed rally in front of the American Embassy in Moscow...nearly 20,000 young people held pumpkins marked with the names of “America’s victims,” among them the casualties in South Ossetia. In an amateur film shown at the rally, an actor portraying a drunken George W. Bush bragged that the United States had engineered both world wars and the rise of Hitler to expand its power....

...In the post-Soviet era, many Russians are angry because their country has neither the stature nor the living standards that they believe it deserves.... As frustrations mount, it is often easier to blame an external force than the country’s own failings. It doesn’t help that the 1990s, when pro-Western attitudes were at their peak, are remembered as a time of poverty and insecurity. The result is an inferiority complex toward the West and, in particular, the United States, as the pre-eminent Western power and cold war rival. This widespread sentiment combines admiration, envy, grievance, resentment, and craving for respect and acceptance as an equal. Most Russians viewed the recent conflict in Georgia as a victory over the Americans — a matter less of strategic self-interest than of psychological self-assertion..."


I think it bodes ill.

And it can't help but make me wonder about our own sandy structures: two hot wars plus another (the one "on terror") wrapped tightly in the language of fear; the pillaging of the people in the name of promoting plutocrats; the abrogation of the Constitution; etc, ad nauseum...

When George Bush, after the failures of the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, trotted out George Tenant, Tommy Franks, and Paul Bremer, and hung Presidential Medals of Freedom around their necks, it reminded me of nothing so much as the ceremonies on the Kremlin wall, where Khrushchev or Brezhnev did the same to aging generals after the failure of another five-year plan.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Religion (Three)


It's neither my expectation nor intent to change minds. But since some things simply make no sense to me, I feel like saying why. If it were possible, at minimum, to encourage a person or two who didn't already, to recognize the right of people to believe differently and, therefore, to pull pack a click from trying to politicize their beliefs, I'd be more than happy. Not counting on it.

Today's topic: miracles.

For all I know each religion has its own clear definition. Mine is an event that indicates the hand of god, or gods, at work: something the occurrence of which can't be explained except as such. Which, if I understand omniscience and omnipotence and perfection, ought to include everything, all the time.

When you think about it, that there can be no middle ground: If God is all knowing and all powerful, either he is in control of every single thing that occurs, everywhere, to everyone, or he's checked out entirely and no longer has his finger in the pie. Theologicians, ministers, believers can argue but there's no logical basis for concluding otherwise. In the universe of an omniperfect god, we're marionettes with minimal if any free will, or we're entirely on our own. To believe in miracles as an extraordinary event -- and in the power of prayer, for that matter -- you must reject the idea of a perfect god who is omniscient and omnipotent.

School bus drives off a cliff, carrying eighty kids. One lives. It's a miracle, say his parents, the press, and everyone who hears the story. God was watching over him. A woman is diagnosed with incurable cancer, "given" (as a doctor I always hated that term/concept) six months to live. Five years later, she's still alive. Miraculous.

But think about it: how can you call the survival of that child an act of god, without also saying the death of the seventy-nine was god's idea as well? If he chose to save the one, mustn't he also -- in his perfection -- have chosen to kill the others? Because, after all, he could have saved them; or what the heck -- not pushed the bus off the cliff in the first place.

We can't know the mind of God, people will say. He has his reasons; a plan for us all. Okay, fine. But since we know he arranged the death of the seventy-nine, and since we consider miracles an event that shows the hand of God, why don't we rejoice over the dead ones, and call them a miracle as well? Or is it that since we know God is at work in all these things, the miracle is when he does something nice? What does that say?

God is at work, or he isn't. If he chooses to (fill in the blank) and if he has (by accepted doctrine) the power and knowledge to do it, then when (fill in the blank) doesn't happen, it's also his choice. Right? How can it be otherwise? Unless sometimes he's not paying attention. In which case he's not perfect; certainly not omniattentive. Oops, he says. Didn't see that cliff. Well, there's still time to grab the one kid...

The death of the other kids is no less the work of God -- no less a miracle, therefore -- than the saving of the one. There are no miracles, or everything is a miracle, which sort of dilutes the significance. If God can choose to intervene sometimes, then he's also choosing NOT to intervene in the others, unless he's not fully engaged. But by the doctrine of perfection, power, knowledge, he must be. So there it is: he's doing it all, or he's doing nothing. Made us, intelligently designed us, then left us completely alone, like a terrarium in a sixth-grade science project, to see what would happen. Stayed overnight at a friend's house.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Exit Strategy


Several years ago, a friend's house was robbed. In addition to stealing precious things and trashing much of what was left behind, the thief took the time to defecate on her bed before he left.

For some reason I've been thinking about that a lot, lately.

Update: and there's this.

On Religion (Two)


Like most kids, I had a religious upbringing, albeit in a family of generationally diminishing fervor. Great grandparents were founders of temples, rabbis; grandparents lit the Sabbath candles more often than not, insisted on Holy Day get-togethers, trips to the Temple, and following the proper rituals. Once in a while my mom tried valiantly and mostly in vain to get us to services on Friday nights; my dad had an abiding dislike of all men of the cloth except for the priest (later Bishop, then Archbishop) who presided over the University of Portland. I attended Sunday School until I graduated high school, took a certain amount of pride in my heritage, went through the usual adolescent period of religiosity, even imagining what it would be like to give moving and soul-expanding sermons to my future flock. At about age fourteen, I received a scholarship to a religious camp in California, where I had what some might describe as an experience of the divine, one evening in the woods, away from the bonfire, with a girl from Piedmont...

But that's another story.

I have a clear recollection -- clear enough almost to be able to re-conjure the feeling -- of asking my mom about death, probably around age six or eight. "Will I die," I asked. Her affirmative answer included nothing about afterlife, no heaven: Jews are pretty silent on that subject, especially we of the Reform variety. I recall feeling the numbing and transfixing coldness of terror, deep and abiding, palpably physical. It was the foreverness of it, the infinitude: less the idea of death itself but that there was no end to it, I'd be dead always and evermore, millions of billions of years. That feeling has stayed with me, lessened with time by the realization that it must be like it was for the infinity in the other direction, before I was born. And that seems to have been all right.

In that moment, whether I fully apprehended it or not, was the existential engine of belief: even a little boy could feel the terrifying certainty of death and the panic it engenders. That's an (if not the) essence of us: before there is belief, there is dread. Enough to drive us to the certainty and peacefulness of ignorance, in the "ignoring" sense of the word. The need is too great to resist.

And yet, I do; and I can only wonder what it is that separates those that do from those that don't. It's not intelligence or even inquisitiveness. Is one, or the other, more evolved? Is one, or the other, more felicitous for the future of man? I don't know, and I won't live to find out.

At some point it just stopped making sense.

I guess belief, by definition, isn't supposed to make sense. I'm okay with fantasy books and movies, but there has to be internal consistency. In my single-digit youth, Saturday morning serials pissed me off when the next episode showed King of the Rocket Men free of his impossible predicament without ever explaining how it happened. I like good science fiction that creates improbable worlds with imaginative rules that make a sort of sense of their own and that plays within them. And so I think it should be with belief: even if unrooted from reality, it ought to follow a sort of esoteric logic. I can't -- nobody really can, convincingly -- reconcile an omniscient, omnipotent god who has a plan for us, loves us, with what we see around us every day. Or with free will. Or miracles. Or the power of prayer. Or, for that matter, with the idea of eternal reward and eternal punishment. It takes theologians to do that, which is to say people willing to suspend reason and call it scholarship.

That's why I said, in post one on this subject, "The fact that I'm no theological expert makes my thoughts particularly worthy, because since there's no true religion, there can be no true experts. The world needs a little input from that perspective." There's much to say, lots of fascinating subjects; in the name of brevity, let's start with the biggest -- and easiest -- one: who created God?

Contemplating the Universe, one has to accept the idea of existence without creation. Either of stuff, or of God. Or gods. People look at the complexity of our world, of life, of nephrons and nucleotides and say it can't just have happened: such intricacy implies a creator. And yet what could be more complex than that creator: a tinkerer with tryptophane, a meddler with mitochondria? It's a lot easier, for me anyway, to accept the primordial existence of atoms and rocks than of a big guy with jewelers' forceps and loupes. Who sat around for an infinite number of eons with nothing to do until twelve-thousand (or is it six-?) years ago, when it occurred to him to create something.

So that's the first thing: if you can get your mind around the idea of the most complex, powerful, brilliant and perfect being imaginable existing forever with no creator, why not protons and electrons? If neither is explainable, isn't the latter a hell of a lot simpler? More sensible, even? Occam's razor.

Given a little more time, I intend to spout off on those other issues, too.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Change


Because the first of his appointments include several from the Clinton era, Barack Obama is being criticized by some as reneging on his "change" agenda. I disagree.

Emanuel, Podesta, Craig, Holder, maybe Hillary. Several others. As far as I know, these are strong and capable people. What it says to me is that he wants people in place who have been there; that he wants to avoid having to bring staff up to speed, wants to get off to a running start. It's less about where they've been than it is about what they will do. And whereas that remains to be seen, I find no reason to think it will be business as usual. I'm glad he's not starting with neophytes. I'm happy to see some old hands, experienced in dealing with Congress, knowing their way around the White House. I draw no premature conclusions about policy and productivity, other than to see evidence of seriousness of purpose.

One would predict, based on what he's said many times, that there will be great changes in how business is done: there will be inclusiveness, thoughtfulness, carefulness, openness, non-ideological. That's the kind of change he promised and which we expect. And until we have a look at these people in action in an Obama administration, claims to the contrary are premature, and silly.

On Religion (One)


Why is it that, if we humans need to believe in deities, we also need to be told what to believe? What connects the internal, the personal need, to the external, the -- for lack of a better term -- social need? The mob mentality. If that connection could be severed, I might feel better about all the religion that's out there.

People -- reportedly created by a perfect god -- are shockingly imperfect. Speaking physically, it couldn't be more obvious: cancer, arthritis, birth defects, halitosis. Morally: hateful, vengeful, selfish, dishonest. Psychically: fearful, wildly varying in intelligence, weak-willed, needy, easily deceived, quickly roused to mob rule. With all our failings, compounded by enough self-awareness to be scared stiff of death and dying, it's not hard to understand the comforting role played by confidence that there's a greater meaning, an end beyond the end. And yet what's out there is the grandest of breakfast buffets: take your choice, fill your plate, come back for seconds if the first didn't fill you up. There's something about it that puts the lie to itself. If scrambled eggs were the perfect meal, there'd be no need for the pastry table.

So here we are: a species in need of solace. And it's obvious that there's not a single source of it; in fact, there are so many religions, and so many variations within those religions, so many churches and subsets and preachers of their own minds, that for all intents and purposes we're making it up as we go along. Infinitely customizable, individually internalized, why is it, then, that people are so easily convinced that their beliefs are in some way truer than those of the person next door? Why the need, moreover, to impose them on that neighbor?

Which gets back to the original question. The ultimate purpose of belief, as I see it anyway, is to assuage the fear of death, to confirm meaning where there might be none. What could be more personal or individual? Whence, then, the leap to the general: the good book, the sermon, the joining of forces, the mob? The accepting as literal truth, words written, re-written, translated, updated, modified; having selected one among countless many religions and beliefs, wherefore the need to go beyond personal rejection of the others, to banishing them? To destroying them. To imposing on them one's own. Why the inability to say, This works for me, that works for you, peace be upon us all?

Answer: none of it really works. If belief fully satisfied the soul, there'd be no need to denigrate another's. There'd be no need to join up with thousands of others, marching, chanting, threatening. If personal belief, alone, were enough to give comfort, the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of others would be of no consequence. There wouldn't be religious wars, there wouldn't be megachurches, there wouldn't be a Prop 8. For that matter, there wouldn't be Nazi rallies, gangs, or crowds with torches. Or burning crosses. But that's not the way it is. For some reason, we puny humans need constant validation of our beliefs; we need to surround ourselves with amens and we need to drown out the doubt that arises from seeing others believing differently. In our essence, something is greatly amiss.

Which is to say the obvious: if there were one true religion, it would have resolved the doubts of everyone. If a belief were transcendently right there'd be no others. (It's a truism in surgery -- about which I know a few things -- that if there are several different operations to solve a particular problem -- example: chronic pancreatitis -- the perfect one hasn't been found.) Logically, the only reasonable assumption is that everyone who thinks their religion is true, is wrong, if for no other reason than that there are billions of people -- nearly everyone, when you get down to the minute particulars -- who believe something very different. With just as much certainty. Billions. They can't all be right. In fact, if there is a cosmic truth, by simple arithmetic you can point to any individual believer and be sure he or she is most certainly wrong about it. That includes me. And you.

I plan to write more about this. The fact that I'm no theological expert makes my thoughts particularly worthy, because since there's no true religion, there can be no true experts. The world needs a little input from that perspective. The emperors have no clothes, and you can never have enough people saying so.

Before I go on, I want to clarify something, because I have valued friends who are believers: I respect religion as it applies to individuals. To the extent that it provides guidance and comfort and internal peace, given our obvious human frailties and shortcomings, I see the value, the appeal of religion. Most people couldn't get along without it in some form. For reasons I'll try to explain, I wish that were not the case. But I'm a realist. So for now, I'd settle for the elimination of organized religion, with its need to impose itself on everyone else. If people could find personal solace in their beliefs, and were comfortable enough in them to rise above the need to see them reflected everywhere they look, the future would look way better. Dayenu, is what I'd say.

And finally, why now? Prop 8. Mormon support for Prop 8. Sarah Palin. Priests refusing communion to Obama supporters. Obama is the antichrist. Burning black churches after the election. This. Intelligent design. Young earth creationists. 9/11. The Middle East. Our failing education. By much evidence, organized religion is an increasing threat to our future as it tries to substitute belief for reason, to deny human rights, and as it forces itself onto the body politic, narrow-minded and certain of its rectitude.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Just Wondering...


Throughout his campaign, John McCain said countless times, "I know how to catch Osama bin Laden." Once, he even said so in front of Barack Obama. Do you suppose he gave the secret to the President-Elect during their meeting today?

Open Letter To Barack Obama



Dear Mr. President-Elect,

I'm aware of the presumption here; first and foremost thinking you or anyone near you will ever see this; knowing letters like these abound in the interwebs like fruit flies in that other web, outside the window of my kitchen; and, of course, thinking I have something useful to say. But this, I hope, is a little different, because I admit I know next to nothing; and I ask even less.

Already I sense a list of demands out there -- differing from each other, often at odds. People and groups who supported you are elbowing their way to the table, enunciating expectations and -- sometimes none too subtly -- suggesting electoral consequences were you not to satisfy them. Not me.

Between my wife and me we contributed more to your campaign than to all previous campaigns at all levels: presidents, governors, senators, combined. (Well, that might not be strictly true: I gave a big chunk when my wife ran -- successfully -- for the school board.) And we gave to other groups that might help in your election, and to congressional candidates from other states where it seemed a boost might matter. Even as our savings poofed into the oblivion of a failing economy, we kept giving, thousands of dollars by the time it was over. Such was our belief that you are the right person for this time. And all we hope for is this:

Don't listen to any of 'em, or to us, for that matter. Listen to your advisers (I'm okay with whomever you choose for your cabinet and policy teams by the way), trust your intelligence, and do what you conclude is right: address problems, not politics. Forswear the "permanent campaign." Our belief that that is exactly who you are is what got us solidly on board. I don't care if your policies are "liberal" or "conservative," just that they have a chance of succeeding. I believe that the majority of voters for you did so in that hope: for label-free, fact-based, thoughtful policy, accountable to the truth. For a welcome change.

I'm pretty sure you don't need to hear this, and I'm a little embarrassed to have said it, because throughout your campaign you proclaimed it yourself, many times. But since most of the advice bubbling up in bytes is specific and often particular to one interest-group or another, I thought you might like to know that to me at least, you owe nothing specific; my donations came string-free (I feel your sigh of relief!) At long last, all I wanted was a president with extraordinary intelligence, the ability to engage ideas from all points on the compass, and to find solutions based in reality, above politics. That will be more than enough return on the investment (and maybe even the return of my investments!); and, most certainly, it would assure your reëlection, even absent -- were it to be the case -- votes from the extremes.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of your campaign was to convince so many that we're all in this together; and to engender the belief that each of us has a stake in the government, after all. Your continued ability to inspire and reinforce that commitment (it's amazing: I really think it's more than an empty sentiment for many people now, thanks to you) will be a necessary part of your success.

Yes, I'm a liberal; and I happen to believe that facts favor progressive policy. Pragmatic policy. So I'd bet your efforts will be in that direction. But if they work, I don't really care.

Yours optimistically, humbly, and with great relief,

Sid Schwab

P.S: The video is from the greatest concert movie of all time: "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." I think it should be screened at the White House (to a carefully selected audience) when you need an uplifting break. And it's my opinion that Leon Russell, herbaceous mellowness as seen above notwithstanding, made Joe Cocker who he is.

P.P.S: Having watched you last night on 60 Minutes, reconfirming everything I've come to believe about you, this letter seems particularly dispensable. But I'm posting it anyway: you know how it is with us bloggers...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Talking Heads


In the waning weeks of the presidential campaign, I found myself no longer watching the Sunday talking head shows: they tended to drive me crazy and only increase the general angst I was feeling. Turns out, there may have been a reason. Today, in fact, the schedule is as follows (per Atrios):

7 Appearances by Republican current elected officeholders
3 Appearances by Democratic current elected officeholders.
2 Appearances by Republican former elected officeholders.
1 Appearance by a Bush Cabinet Secretary.
T. Boone Pickens
Ted Turner.

(The myth of the "liberal" media has, in my opinion, long since been debunked. But it serves as a convenient whipping boy for the right wing. Lazy? Yes. Vapid? Certainly. Superficial? Like scum on a puddle. Liberal? Not so much.)

Nevertheless, because I noted Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize winning economist, whom I read regularly, acknowledging his partisanship) was on, I tuned into This Week this morning. It was quite amazing.

There are perhaps none on television as fond of hearing themselves talk, as smug and self-satisfied as Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, and George Will (as opposed to the first two, I think he's a very smart guy and often worth listening to; how the other two are elevated to thrones of thought-production, I don't know). There they sat, with the opportunity to hear from an actual expert on the economy, and they barely allowed him a word. Literally: no sentence passed his lips, but that it was interrupted by one of the triumvirate. Not one. It was stunning, even for them.

Not that it matters. None of them (the regular panel of pronoucers) has an actual say in anything of substance. Still, it's amazing what passes for discussion on television nowadays, and it reminds me why I turned it off a while back.

[Update: Here's one that got through more or less uninterrupted, and showed George Will a thing or two.]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hating George Bush


One of my most respectful commenters tends to see my posts through the lens of "Bush Hatred." It's a convenient deflection.

Similar to the unmentioned and evidently forgotten Clinton Hatred, the concept of Bush Hatred (that conniest of neo-cons, my fellow M.D. Charles Krauthammer, coined the term "Bush Derangement Syndrome" [in fairness to me and my fellow physicians, Krauthammer is a former psychiatrist, which subset of medical doctors I've always considered a waste of a good education [[in fairness to psychiatrists, not all of them are as idiotic as Krauthammer, nor do I mean to disrespect the profession: only to say it hardly requires a medical degree]]]) misses the point entirely -- as does, for that matter and most of the time, the commenter to whom I refer.

Just as there were on the right people who so hated Bill Clinton that they couldn't credit him with a single positive thing, so there are on the left a few (present blogger excepted) who are so enraged by George Bush that they are blind to his accomplishments.

Or would be, if he had any.

What I hate about George Bush is not the man (although it gets pretty damn hard to take when the President of the US constantly embarrasses us all) but what he's done. My wise commenter suggests that "if libs proclaimed their disdain for people who would harm this country as loudly as they proclaim their disdain for the current president, maybe they wouldn't sound so "unpatriotic." " He (I assume it's a he, because the women I know [I'm speaking personal knowledge, now, as opposed to one I've seen of late on TV] are pretty rational thinkers) couldn't be more wrong. The tragedy, the disgrace of George Bush is exactly that in every way, he's aided and abetted those who would harm this country. Because of his shallow and incompetently executed policies, wherever you look you see our enemies stronger than they were. It's precisely BECAUSE we dastardly liberals understand the danger to our country posed by those who wish us ill that we are angry at George Bush.

You name it: our economy is faltering, our military is weakened, the invasion recruited more terrorists than it eliminated, Iran is stronger, al Queda is safely ensconced in Pakistan, North Korea has bombs, peace is further away from Israel and Palestine, we are more hated and less respected around the world: in short, I can see only damage to our interests inflicted upon us by George Bush. His "war on terror" is, in addition to being stupidly named and constitutionally abused, nearly entirely ill-conceived;* it has accomplished the exact opposite of what was (presumably) intended (other than to have enriched certain pro-Bush members of the plutocracy). (Not wishing to sound too conspiratorial, I'll allow the possibility that that was not the primary intent.)

It's the unswayable Bush lovers that represent the real danger. In passing off all disagreement as "Bush Hatred," and in claiming falsely that liberals don't understand that we have enemies, people like my commenter willfully ignore the real reasons behind the criticisms and make correcting the mistakes harder. You can't eradicate terrorists with invading armies. You can't recruit help in finding them when you piss off the entire world. You don't make the country safer when you disregard the vulnerabilities on its own soil, nor when you bankrupt it to the point of being unable to fix them. When you round up people and torture them and hold them without charges, you not only get inaccurate information, you degrade your ability to try them in a respectable court of law (assuming you believe in such a thing) and rob us of our ability to demand lawful behavior in others. When you spend trillions on an unnecessary war that in no way plugs our weak spots but in fact increases them while killing our own and tens of thousands of others, you damage yourself more than our enemies could have -- and did -- in their wildest seventy-seven-virgin-dreams in their deepest caves. That, I'd say, is reason enough to believe George Bush has been a disaster for our country, and a boon to our enemies.

We all agree there are dangers and dangerous people out there. Where we disagree is in what are effective responses.

To buy the simple-minded idea that "liberals" love our enemies and hate our country is only to exacerbate and catalyze the destruction wrought by George Bush: by reducing the argument to absurdity while ignoring the issues, it -- as did he -- plays right into the hands of those who wish us ill.

*[I happen to agree that domestic surveillance and world-wide intelligence-gathering are an integral part -- the main part, in fact -- of fighting terrorism. Republicans laughed it off, of course, when John Kerry said as much in 2004; but, in fact, to the extent that we are safer since 9/11, it's due to the increased security (such as it is) at airports, and to the plotters (the ones that were actually real) that were uncovered by surveillance (mostly in and by other countries). On the other hand, there's no reason why such surveillance can't be done within the law, a concept evidently foreign to George Bush.]




Status Report.... And A Question

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bailing From The Bailout




I guess I'm batting .500. But as usual The Daily Show got it 100% right.

Whereas I've thought from before the beginning that the Iraq invasion was a horrible mistake, I bought into the bailout. When I saw the above bit as it aired, I must admit I was a little shaken; but economists that I've come to respect (admitting my own knowledge rounds off to zero) had generally said -- all with reservations -- that something needed to be done. Now, given the panbushopresidentially precedented mismanagement, it's looking like another bamboozlement (to put the best possible spin on it.)

Given the Paulsonian reversal, the lack of transparency, and the absent oversight, one can only wonder if this was the penultimate pillaging for personal profit as this pathetic president passes the portal. Lowest ever approval ratings in the history of mankind? Oh yeah? Well, take THIS, motherf%&kers!

(Is that too harsh a view? Maybe. But they do seem to be taking that attitude as they scramble to undo as many environmental laws as possible in their final days. It really does seem like George Bush, to the extent that he's engaged at all, is leaving with his middle finger raised.)

Other countries have taken action similar to ours, regarding bailing out their economies. The underlying notion of need may indeed be valid. Maybe it's just that over here, it's being done so erratically, with such a lack of central cohesion, so arrogantly (give us the damn bill and then shut the f@#k up, was the original proposal), that it's neither effective nor trustworthy. One can only wonder how many sub-rosa multimillionaires it's creating.

It's positively invasionokatrinoid. It seems this administration -- "the MBA presidency," we were told; "the adults have arrived" -- is constitutionally (to use a word unknown to them) unable to do anything right: to think a thing through carefully, to consider the big picture, to execute (to use a word that, in their case, negates my point) effectively.

So we, the people, are left holding a fatally full bag, while made to wonder if it was in any way necessary, and, if it was, whether it was either willfully distorted for personal gain, or simply handled so badly that it accomplished nothing but screwing us all, once again.

My impression of Barack Obama and the people around him is that they are very serious and thorough thinkers, committed to solutions and not to politics for its own sake. I hope to hell I'm right; it'll be necessary -- but hardly sufficient -- it they mean to repair the damage left behind.

.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cleaving To The Flag


I find it easy to root for local sports teams, even though most players have no more connection with my city than an inked and easily broken contract. I watch most games, go to a few, follow the stats, I like it when they win. But I could no more paint myself up and hoot and holler than I could walk naked down a parkway.

Similarly, there's something about the USA! USA! USA! sort of nationalism that I find off-putting. Hearing it chanted at Olympic events, for example, embarrasses me; I think it's rude to the other countries, and offensive. More so at the Sarah Palin-like rallies, where it takes on a sort of ominous tone, a menacing subtext. And yet, here I am feeling all proud of my country as I haven't for several years. The whole concept of nationalism/patriotism/love of country is one I find puzzling, and interesting. Does it mean what it says? Why do the manifestations tend to differ along party lines?

Essay question: why was a big deal made of Obama's flag pinnotness when McCain never wore one? Why did he begin wearing one, when McCain never did? Why is symbolism so easily substituted for action? Why do so many equate criticism of our country's actions with lack of patriotism? And what the hell is patriotism?

I find the word to be a cudgel, wielded mostly from the right, aimed to discredit those with whom one disagrees. It's a surly shorthand for "My country right or wrong, and if you don't buy what I'm selling, you must hate America." Or something like that. Because patriotism has, as I see it, no reliable definition. Love of country. Love of ice cream. In what way do they differ? I guess I wouldn't fight and die for ice cream (although triple chocolate fudge brownie is pretty damn good); if clearly threatened, I would for country: I actually came close (the dying part) a couple of times in Vietnam. But I think it'a less about the abstraction of "country" than family, friends, self-preservation; or isn't that what "country" is all about?

I pay my taxes; I've voted for every school bond and levy, every transportation tax increase, and I don't particularly enjoy it. I've never gotten into tax shelters (a couple of my friends did, once, good liberals, they. Nailed for fines and interest, they had to refinance their homes to pay for it, and I had no sympathy.)

While my wife supported me and the rest of the troops by working for the McGovern anti-war campaign, I served in a war with which I disagreed (not that I had a lot of choice, but many of my friends made successful moves to avoid it; and when I got orders to Vietnam I figured if I somehow wheedled out -- I was given suggestions -- someone else would have to go in my place.) I worked eighty-plus hour weeks most of my career, donated to charities; gave more than I took from life, I think. When I traveled in the Soviet Union as a language student in college, during the height of the Cold War and of the civil rights struggles at home, I defended my country strenuously in several street-corner arguments. I've never been arrested, I've gotten one speeding ticket in forty-eight years of driving, if I get too much change from a cashier, I give it back. In every election since I was of age, I voted: more often than not for losing candidates. I admire, and at some level take pride in (even though it wasn't me), the ways in which the US has shown the world the way in so many areas. Do I "love" my country? I don't think I understand the term. Some people say they love their cars.

I'm very glad I live where I do.

Am I a patriot? Or, to put it another way, isn't the above list enough to claim patriotism, even though it's not a word I've ever used about myself? Am I not as much a patriot as Pat Buchanan? When I criticize the travesty that was the Bush presidency, does it negate the claim?

In the denouement of the election, having heard "patriotism" tossed around in ways that made me sick, I hereby vote to banish it from the lexicon. To refer to someone as a patriot is to imply some counterpart is not. It's an imaginary word, a freighted word but one of no substance, stripped of whatever meaning it might once have had. Must you own a musket, do you have to agree with invading Iraq to be a patriot?

What I am is a citizen; one who believes in the Constitution and the rights it implies, including criticizing the government and demanding better of it; one that follows the law and who has no sense of entitlement beyond that of everyone else. And yes, given the constant pressure on the Constitution, I support the ACLU. From where I sit it's less clear that the current government shares my beliefs: if I knew how to use the word "patriot," I'm not sure I could apply it to George Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, because they clearly tried to subvert and ignore the Constitution, and have harmed our country. Nor is it easy to use the word in connection with the campaign run by John McCain and Sarah Palin, for they deliberately tried to tear the country asunder.

Which means we need to redefine the word, or dump it. From political campaigns, at the very least.


[Amusing addendum: during the current and very brief salmon season, Native American gill-netters are plying the waters in the bay over which we look. Reaching their fill, they off-load their catch to a waiting processing boat parked right in front of our house. Its name, I just noted, which can't be discerned from the photo so take my word, is "American Patriot."]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rebound



As usual, The Onion demonstrates that satire is separated from truth by the thinnest and most permeable of membranes (if this isn't prescience, I don't know what is). I do indeed find myself re-entering the world of the living, tentatively, warily, toesomely testing the waters, if somewhat less pathetically than in the above video. My obsessive reading and re-reading of my favorite political blogs, while not entirely absent from my life, is more resistable; in fact, I sense less energy in them as well. Mine, too, for that matter.

I still want news; I'm still most interested in how the transition will unfold, whom the President-elect will pick for what positions. I look forward to his inaugural speech, and I anticipate with some anxiety the first few months of actual governing. I don't want to be disappointed in my belief that he'll be a pragmatist, searching for the best solutions from the best people, catering not too much to any political faction.

Mainly, though, for now there's a tremendous sense of relief, manifested in a certain lightness of foot. Ever take a long hike with a heavy backpack? Know that amazing feeling of lightness when you put it down, a literal feeling that you could float away? I guess it's sorta like that: as one who found the Bush presidency nearly unrelentingly leaden in its incompetence and disregard for the law and for reason and for us, there's a giddy joy in contemplating a government run by unapologetically smart and informed people. I don't deny that my glasses are erubescent: still, it's only the most partisan of dead-enders who could deny the difference in style and substance when listening to Obama speak, compared to his predecessor. How welcome, the sense of leaning forward to hear, as opposed to reaching to switch if off.

Are my expectations too high? No doubt they are, fueled by a longing to see things set right, and by the simple pleasure of feeling positive for a change. But I cling to the belief that if enough people demand it, our lawmakers might actually be forced, in numbers large enough to carry it off, to look beyond self and party. In this election, I sense the desire. It could happen. Couldn't it?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Patriots


I understand the resentment. God knows if John McCain and Sarah Palin had won, I'd've been deeply disappointed and pathologically depressed (as opposed to resentful.) Along with the passage of the gay-hatred bills, it would have said something about our country that I'd have preferred not to know: we are terminally divided. On the other hand, Obama and Biden campaigned on inclusiveness, on the idea that our problems are so great we need everyone on board. Will enough people buy in?

No matter how disappointed or resentful, no matter how much a person dislikes or fears Obama, it seems indisputable that wishing for his failure as President is wishing for the end of America. I believe -- because I felt it myself -- that a great mass of people saw in Barack Obama the possibility of an end to hyperpartisanship, a turning toward governing by problem-solving, where results are what matter, rather than the label attached to them or who takes credit. More than that: I believe that if it doesn't happen now, it'll be too late. I've said it many times before.

The tasks are daunting: shoring up a failing economy, addressing deficits (how, and when), seeking solutions to two wars, finding energy alternatives, fixing education and health care, the environment, illegal immigration, repairing international relations. It's no longer about party power politics. We're on a downward trajectory that threatens our country if not the entire planet. It's not just political rhetoric; it's the end-game. It's hard to doubt it.

I never expected everyone to join hands. I'm not surprised that John Boehner is grousing and that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are screaming. To them, evidently, loss of personal influence is more threatening than the imminent loss of country, and I guess it always will be. But the rest of us, people actually living in the real world, have to hope Barack Obama and his government succeed. Hard as it would have been for me, I'd have hoped the same for John McCain and S.... (I can't say it, but I would have.)

If my house were sliding off the bluff near which it's perched, I'd want rescuers to find a way to shore it up; I wouldn't care what color they were, what brand of machinery they used, what language they spoke, or what they might have said to each other before they showed up. If they pulled it back to safety, I'd be grateful and relieved.

That's the situation in which we find ourselves, except that it's way more complicated: it's not just a war, or just a depression, or just an energy crisis, or just a technology gap. It's all of them and much more, wadded together into a giant pulsating and frightening mass. We simply can't afford the luxury of political posturing, of ill-wishing, of power- and hate-mongering. And that goes for those in and out of power.

So.

At the very least, give the guy a chance. More than that: the times ahead will test, well beyond anything most of us have ever known, the notion of patriotism and sacrifice. The "me, not you" mode of the last eight years (okay, longer than that) will have to go on hold. What we need -- dare I say it -- is "change." Cutting back on energy use, willingness, yes, to share the wealth -- what remains of it -- for as long as it takes to get the economy going again, continually pressuring our politicians to stay on task, to put aside pettiness. A recognition that being in it together is the way it is, not just a slogan.

It will test us all. And it's a simple "pass/fail." No grading on the curve, not any more.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Excuses



Personally I think the election of Barack Obama was because he won, rather than that John McCain lost. To the extent that the McCain supporters are blaming forces outside McCain's control, I strongly disagree.

The two main "outside" issues bemoaned by Republicans are the economic meltdown, and the "turning" of the press against John McCain. Both views, I think, are easily refuted. Behind each are the actions of John McCain himself.

It's frequently stated that McCain was leading in the polls until Lehman Brothers went under. That's simply not true on its face:

Lehman happened September 13. McCain's fall began a week earlier, as did Obama's rise. Other than right after his convention, McCain was behind pretty much the whole time, exacerbated as Sarah Palin's interviews, first with Charlie Gibson and later with Katie Couric, were broadcast.

What was in fact at work was John McCain's absurd response to the crisis, not the crisis itself. His statement that the "fundamentals" of the economy were strong, followed by his acknowledgment less than a day later that we were in a crisis was pretty revelatory of his out-of-depthitude. As was his silly attempt to explain that by "fundamentals" he meant "workers." Yeah. Walking through an assembly line, saying "How are all you fundamentals doing today?" Or something. The "straight talk" was beginning to develop wrinkles.

Following in short order was his boing-boing behavior: "suspending" his campaign while continuing campaign activity; rushing back to D.C. in a mere twenty-two hours, after first making a couple of political stops. And, most damagingly, revealing that he had neither suggestions nor influence. Taking credit when it looked like the measure had passed, placing blame when it turned out it hadn't. Had he responded in a less vacuous way, had he been less like what we'd been seeing for the last eight years, i.e. atmospherics masquerading as leadership, I think the crisis could have been an opportunity for him to have shown well. Had, of course, he any sort of in-depth understanding of economics. He had a chance to perform well, and he blew it. It didn't blow him. As it were.

[I also happen to think McCain's involvement in the Russia-Georgia conflict was pretty telling as well, even though it came and went pretty fast in the public consciousness. From his histrionic and simplistic "We are all Georgians now," to dispatching his dopplegangers Lieberman and Graham, all president-like, to the region as if on a mission of state, he looked, to me anyway, over-reaching and opportunistic. In fact, recent revelations would tend to confirm that.]

The "turning," the "unfairness" of the press is an even more laughable idea. Having bought into and actively promoted the idea of John McCain as maverick (really, what the hell is that?) and straight-talker for virtually his entire career (after getting past his major scandal), the press had finally, in the face of such mounting evidence, to acknowledge it as the canard that it was. The examples kept on coming, until reporters were forced, reluctantly, to report. What was called "piling on" poor Sarah was nothing more than doing the work to find out who she really was (since he evidently hadn't). The "bridge to nowhere" came tumbling down; her earmark antipathy was in fact a love affair; on and on. And the McCain campaign's distortions were inept and transparent: the "lipstick on a pig" deception, the ad warfare full of, mildly stated, disingenuousness. Even a press as craven and lazy as most of ours is, it turns out, has a point below which it won't go. The selection of Sarah Palin and the efforts that followed, instead of the brilliant stroke it seemed for the first five minutes, turned out to be a proxy for McCain's impulsiveness; for his substitution of scenery for seriousness.

Finally -- and I can only hope it's true -- people may have had their fill of dishonorable and distracting campaigning. William Ayers, Reverend Wright. Terrorist, socialist, communist, America-hating. Real America. Obama's message of common purpose prevailed over theirs of divisiveness. And, of course, Obama, the dreaded and derided community organizer, out-organized the hell out of them.

McCain and Palin, in the end, made their appeal almost entirely to the basest of the base; and in times like these, when it's clear we're ALL in for really bad times, it just didn't work. People sensed it's now or never. Or so one would like to believe. But McPalin's negativity did come at a price, not only to their campaign but to the cause of future coöperation.

In my local paper there was a letter to the editor after the election. The writer claimed to offer support, as an American, to the new president, while promising to do everything he could to see he was defeated in four years. Even before knowing what sort of president he'll be.

So there's that.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Random Thoughts


What took him so long?

Some things are simply beyond understanding.

Alaskans really are nuts.

Speaking of which, there's this.

Many times during the campaign, John McCain said "I know how to catch Osama bin Laden." Now that the election is over, I wonder if he'll tell President Obama, or if Obama will ask for the secret.

Obama chooses Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff. Republican reaction runs the gamut. Common ground will be hard to find. The more I think about it, the more I think it's a fine choice: he's tough and smart and, from most reports, committed to finding solutions and ways to govern broadly.

My biggest hope for the Obama administration is that it will indeed be broadly inclusive and pragmatic. I think it will; his team of economic advisers seems to be a good example. Serious, non-partisan. It's what we'll need across the board.

A Bird In The Hand



When I watched John McCain's concession speech, I thought it was his best moment of the campaign. Gracious and moving, it reflected the "old" John McCain who at some times over the years had impressed me with his political courage. I remain unsure which McCain was the real one: the man of principle, or the one we saw more recently. Either way, I'm happy to let it all go...

But the reason I posted the above video clip is for the last few seconds. When I saw it live, I had several thoughts: how perfunctory and cold was his non-hug of Sarah Palin, and how his handshake with Todd Palin was more like a flipping of the bird, turning away even before their hands met. And, of course, the virtual ignoring of his wife.

He's a complicated guy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

New Rules


I'm certain my blogging accomplishes nothing more than allowing me a way to vent. To the extent that some of my posts generate interesting comments, it's a bonus. But when I get a stream of anonymous comments from people who neither wish to address my thoughts directly, nor have the courtesy to identify themselves in such a way that I can tell one from the other (anonymous is okay if that's the way you want to sign in: how about an initial or something at the end?), whose main method of discourse is either insulting or amounts to nothing more cogent than "I know you are but what am I," I've sometimes exercised my right as a blogger to toss comments. Some, of course, see that as wanting only agreement. Surprise: they miss the point once again. I enjoy thoughtful discourse; when people disagree respectfully and in ways that propel the discussion forward, I love it.

Might I be a hypocrite? Guess so. Do I rant sometimes in less than respectful ways? Hell, yeah. But, I'd argue, it's fact-based. Plus, it's my damn blog!

So here's the deal: I'm switching to comment moderation. This is supposed to be enjoyable, after all. Comments that don't fit loosely with the above will not see the light of day. On the other hand, I'll do away with the need to fill in a mystery word. I welcome argument. But my tolerance for insult and pointless retort has reached its limit. If comment moderation seems not to be working out for some reason, I reserve the right to change my mind.

Elite Delight



The scene is Harvard, that sine qua non of liberal elitism, that center of unAmericanism, where patriotism goes to die (and my wife's alma mater.) When the election was called for Obama.

One of the most evil parts of the McPalin campaign was the elevation to unseen heights of the ridiculous idea that liberals hate America. More than anything else, the election results afford a sense of cleansing, of being able again -- AGAIN!! -- to feel pride in our country. That it's been hard to conjure in these last eight years, with irresponsible wars, hate-mongering, torture, false imprisonment, arrogance, incompetence, false economies, and with knowing our former role as an emblem of hope and aspiration for the world had been tarnished and dashed -- that hardly indicates absent love of country. Frustration implies caring.

An election does not end it all. The difficulties facing us are immense; more than anything else, what's needed is shared willingness to recognize how serious is the mess left behind and how hard it will be to correct it. Electing a leader who calls for common purpose is not the same as achieving it. It will need to start in Congress, where Republicans will have to -- if only for a moment of history -- be willing to come on board, and where Democrats will have to -- in spite of themselves -- be able to be prudent and inclusive, mirroring their president. Who will, of course, have to mean what he's been saying.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Moment, For A Moment...



Watching the celebrations, seeing the tears on the faces, hearing John Lewis say, when asked if he'd ever imagined this in his lifetime, "all we were trying for was to let black people sit at lunch counters, and ride a bus," this song was in my head, and I let it play, ignoring for a while the certainty that it's not really true. Indeed, to be alive when such a thing has happened is a gift of circumstance for which I'll be forever grateful, about which I'll be forever amazed. No matter what happens.

I have no words, I have a million words. We're not there yet. The problems are daunting. Reaction from some -- certainty that Barack Obama is in league with terrorists, that he will destroy the Constitution (as opposed to RESTORE IT!) -- saddens and worries me. Despite his restorative speech, John McCain -- and Sarah Palin even more -- deserves blame for much of it, for making the required work harder.

I thought Barack Obama's speech was near perfect. I'm as certain as I can be that that is who he really is: inclusive, not ideological; hopeful but practical; inspirational but serious. I think he'll do his best to run a centrist (center-left) government, to reach out and listen to those who disagree. If I'm wrong, I'll be disappointed. And surprised.

Nor will he have much room to work: wars, deficits, economic lock-down will constrain him. He'll have to speak truth both to the far right and the far left; as I read somewhere recently (spoken by whom I don't recall), it'll take an entire first term to "unwind" the disasters of the Bush administration. If he's able to make sufficient headway to earn reëlection, in a second term he might be able to lead the sorts of reforms he's talked about: health care, education... So there's reality with which to contend.

But last night, I just let it wash over me: the moment, the hope that things might change for the better, the witnessing of the best version of America, a sense of retaking the higher ground in the eyes of the world. I felt relief that the hatred spewing from the right didn't take hold -- at least not enough, for now, to turn the election. Was it a rejection of that kind of politics? Might we not see it again? I'm not that starry-eyed.

And yet, for that night, it was real: like a red-peach sunrise, a scene to drink in for its own sake, to bathe in and let it wash over oneself, simply for the pleasure of it. A gift of time suspended, an instant of immersion in sensations, all good, letting it go, a weight lifted, wiping away in a single scene the disappointments of the last eight years. Pure escape, for a while. I liked it. The tears on the faces I saw were mine as well: I shared them even as I could barely understand.

This morning, while I still can conjure it, the feeling is increasingly tempered by the reality that hasn't changed. Nearly half the country is disappointed; unknown numbers of those are angry and filled with fear and hatred. In all three states where they ran, initiatives passed banning gay marriage. Why? Why? Who is harmed?

We have a long way to go.

But it's a hell of a start.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Every Little Bit...

Eula Lee


Today I find myself thinking about Eula Lee. For fifty years or more she was a friend of the family, baby-sitter, helper-outer. Born in Mississippi, she moved to Portland Oregon for reasons I never knew; but she had kids and eventually grand kids back there and sent every dollar she could spare home to help them. One by one several of her grand kids came to stay with her in Portland while they attended high school, or college at Portland State, or both. Some stayed around, some went back when they graduated. Never making much money, Eula Lee always found the means to feed and clothe them, and send them to school. She was an amazing woman.

She spoke in rhythms and phrases that were unfamiliar and exotic to me when I was a kid of six or so. "And er uh" punctuated her sentences, she hummed to herself, sang church music, waddled around in her body that was six sizes too big. Even as she aged, her skin remained smooth and glowing and the most beautiful shade of chocolate, dark and rich. I don't know how far she went in school herself, maybe she had none at all; she could neither read nor write until my mom -- actually a few years her junior -- taught her both. We got postcards from her after, in her seventies I'd say, she moved back to Jackson. In one she mentioned a grandson who'd gotten sick and had to have his "pennies out."

My grandpa, for whom English was a second and beloved language, and who made neologisms at hat drop, called her "Ukulele," which she loved. She laughed a lot.

I was home from college for the summer when Robert Kennedy was killed, not long after Martin Luther King. I wasn't there for that, but when RFK died Eula Lee and I got the news together, and cried together. When will this ever end, she sobbed.

My entry into medical school was a source of pride to Eula Lee; she started calling me "my doctor" as soon as I started, was thrilled when I graduated. She met and pre-approved my wife before I married her. When we started practice in Salem, Eula Lee was still in Portland and we saw her once in a while. The birth of our son filled her with joy, for me, for Judy, for herself. He now has a house in the same neighborhood where she lived, in Portland; when she was there it was a Black ghetto. It's now thrivingly mixed up in all races.

We never saw her after she went back home to Mississippi. We talked several times on the phone, and she'd always begin by asking "How's my doctor?" I remember being surprised when the person who answered the phone would holler for her, "It's for Eula..." Didn't they know her name was Eula Lee? Among the many regrets in my life is that Judy and I never went to visit. We'd planned to, on one of our trips to Jazzfest in New Orleans. But we didn't.

In her last months she was in an assisted living facility near her family. She died a few months ago, which I found after trying unsuccessfully to reach her for a month or two. I wanted to talk to her about Barack Obama.

Gotta Go Through It To Get To It






Monday, November 3, 2008

Mindless

It's not that John McCain and Sarah Palin invented campaigning based on "us versus them." They aren't the first in the Republican party to try to win by denigrating education and expertise, calling those who have them "elitists." It's just that they -- and the apparatus behind them -- have taken it to much higher levels than ever, and they've done it at the very time when we are threatening our own suicide. A time, in other words, when cooperation and calling upon the best advice from the best experts are needed more than ever before.

What the country needs, as in country first, is an electorate willing to think deeply about tough issues; and it needs leaders willing to and capable of calling on our best: our best thinkers, our best politicians, our best scientists, our best selves. Because it ain't gonna be easy, these next few years. It'll be harder, in fact, than either side has been willing to admit, and the reason no one is talking is that no one wants to listen.

With great gusto, from the top of the ticket all the way down, Republicans deride the idea of education, laugh at it in others, tout their own lack of it. Wear it like a damn pendant. From Neiman Marcus. Greedily they bait fear and division, smear their opponents, whatever it takes to win. At all costs. They count on sloppy thinking, because they know they've cultivated it (or, in the case of Sarah Palin, maybe it's because it's all she's ever known.)

It's the direction in which we've been heading for a long time, accelerating exponentially these last eight years: mindlessness. Cheered on by McPalin, facilitated by the religious right, we (they) are actively turning away from education, from science, from thought and discourse, from reality. Because those things are too damn hard. And, of course, because they threaten our (their) deepest need to believe that everything's fine. We make our own facts; that's how Bush did it, that's how Jerry and Pat do it. If the politicians on that side know better, they don't care; because it keeps getting them elected.

The paranoid in me sees it as a grand and cynical plan: recognizing the credulity of many of those on the hard religious right, the Republican party came upon the path to power by using them against themselves, playing to their weaknesses. In addition, knowing that liberal education is necessary to a functioning free society -- and that it's inimical to their ends -- they undertook the two-pronged approach of dumbing down public education and touting private (ie, fact-free, religious-based) education. It's working.

And, of course, there's the demonization of a free and inquisitive press. Inquiry, ipso facto, denotes bias. Divergence from the party line is the same as hatred of country.

It's perfect: to aggrandize power in an open society, you need both to close minds and prevent the spread of knowledge. In a big, brawny and previously energetically innovative country like ours, you'd think that'd be hard, or that it'd take time. Instead, to the amazement of those looking on from the outside, it's been easy as a snakebite.

About our leaders' recent rejection of science, Nobel Laureates are worried, and are urging a change in direction. Of course, these are the epitome of the elitists at whom the right like to sneer: professors, experts, researchers. Scientists, by golly. Thinkers. It not only makes no difference to those whose minds need changing: the very fact that Obama is endorsed by these eggheads is proof that he's the wrong guy. It's the ultimate damnation: don't need no smart people 'round here. We got our ideas all fixed in our head, end of discussion. La la la, we can't hear you.

That we are becoming -- already are -- a nation of idiots is clear. The rest of the world is leaving us in their dust, while on the right the response is either not to care, to rail against immigrants, or simply to deny the truth of it. What's not clear to me is how it came to this. The cause is clear: put simply, it's the rise of religiosity, bringing with it a rejection of reality. But why is it happening here? In other developed countries the trend is the opposite way: separation of religion from public policy or rejection of it entirely. Yet here we are, the once and past leaders of the world in scholarship, innovation, production, invention, electing people based on their religious views -- the more dogmatic the better -- willfully turning away from intellectual rigor. The "what" is obvious. It's the "why" that I don't get.

Tough times require tough thinking. Everywhere but in the US, it seems people understand that. Here, we've turned to magic. Or, rather, we've been led to it; and, for some reason, we've followed with only the occasional look back. Sarah Palin, many say with delight, is the new face of the Republican party. Indeed, I believe that's the case: a hyper-religious fanatical member of a sect-like subset of Christianity who confuses certainty with knowledge. A person for whom discrimination is a sacrament, and whose style of politics is distortion, fear-mongering, and division. One who denies the role of mankind in global warming, who believes God is controlling our politics, our wars, who ignores facts that get in her way. Who wants to ban books, believes "The Flintstones" was a documentary. USA! USA! USA!

This is what we are becoming, relentlessly. And it's why I see this election as such a bellwether of our future. It's why I hope -- deeply, with everything I have left -- for a resounding rejection of the tactics of McCain and the philosophy (if that's what it is) of Palin. For if we continue to laugh off the educated and thoughtful as silly elitists, and if we fall further into substituting her brand of magical and self-reinforcing faith for addressing worldly reality, our downward trajectory will only pick up speed.

I'm not a religious person, but I have valued friends who are. As one form of moral guidepost, as a way to ground oneself in this unsteady world, as a source of reliable strength to help on the journey, I respect it in my friends, because for them that's what it is. But as an alternate reality, as a substitute for grappling with the problems we all face on this planet, I reject it. The idea of my friends praying for the courage and strength they need, looking clear-eyed into the world, is, if anything, something I envy: I'm sure such faith is comforting. But the scenes of thousands of people in a megachurch, fed doomsday theology, speaking in tongues, being rid of witches -- that frightens me. Because those are people -- uncountable in numbers -- who've thrown in the towel and joined up; they've looked around and said, I can't handle it, I'm checking out. And to do it, I need the reinforcement of the likemindless, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, singing in unison with me. More than that, I need to decry and deny the reality of those who disagree, to cast them out, resoundingly to reject their very openness to uncertainty; because the least amount of disagreement threatens me. When facts run counter to my needed beliefs, I will ignore them. I will reject all cognitive dissonance, before it hurts. The Earth is a few thousand years old. Open-mindedness is next to godlessness. You can't tell me otherwise.

Whatever happened to the pioneer spirit, that can-do attitude?

I wouldn't care, except that it affects us all. The credulity demanded by these forms of faith (nor is charismatic Christianity the only threat) oozes outward. Those people, needy in their faith, are the same in their politics. They don't want to hear -- they simply can't deal with -- complexity. Nuance, gray zones? Not even. They must rail at those who don't agree with their simplistic view, and their chosen leaders are happy to feed the need. It is, heretofore and of late, a winning strategy.

Indeed, we appear to be in the end times after all. We are living during the culmination of a near-perfect plan (imperfect only in that, like endotoxin, it's killing its host), foisted by the devilish commingling of religionism and right-wing politics. Filling school boards with fanatics, home-schooling when possible, vouching for religious-based education when they can, in order to close minds to education; turning the populace against the idea of an inquisitive, free, and skeptical press; devaluing expertise and intellectual accomplishment as godless at worst, laughable at best; harnessing believers into the political fold, using their faith against their real-world interests; electing the narrowest of minds. It's a self-reinforcing power machine, and it's taking over. I guess if all that matters to our leaders is personal power, it's all good.

Maybe the religionists don't care: they're on their way to the rapture. But I wonder if at some point the Machiavellio-Rovian politicians who put it all together will have a moment of clarity. Just before we fail as a nation, as the lights go out on America as it once was, will they say "My God, what have we done?"