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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cold War, Hot War, This War, That War

In 1969, President Richard Nixon sat in front of the American people and gave us his exit strategy from Southeast Asia. "Johnson's war" is what he called the Vietnam conflict. He had been in office less than a year, and opposition to the war was a national issue, to say the least. The war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and violent police reaction to protests during the Democratic Convention in Chicago the previous year spurred an entire generation to march on campuses and streets all over the country. Three Days of Peace & Music had just happened in Woodstock, NY where more than one hundred thousand people and the top musical acts of the day railed against Nixon and the war. Nixon called those folks "the vocal minority," and that November evening in 1969 he asked "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans" for his support.

He talked about how we got into the war, from President Eisenhower, to Kennedy to Johnson's escalation "to prevent a Communist takeover."

I heard that speech again recently, and it sounded disquietingly familiar. He said he had a plan that would bring our troops home, "a plan which would end the war and serve the peace." Nixon had first floated his idea in a visit to Guam earlier that year, and now, on television, the American people heard the details of what was already being called the "Nixon Doctrine". There was also another name for Nixon's new policy when applied to Vietnam - "Vietnamization."

In his own words, Nixon's new primary objective in Vietnam was "to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume full responsibility for the security in South Vietnam."

"Through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization," he said, "we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule … as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom."

In June 2005, George W. Bush stood in front of an oddly silent group of soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C. and explained to an increasingly discontented American public his way of getting American troops home from Iraq. Cindy Sheehan was starting to get some press, and there was a growing sentiment of distrust of W and an administration drunk on its own hubris.

He reiterated what has already been called the "Bush Doctirne" - "…as freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well." Then we'll all feel safer. "Our strategy to defend ourselves and spread freedom is working," he says.

He talked about why we went to war, invoking September 11, terrorism and "murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent."

In that speech, Bush said this: "The best way to complete the mission is to help Iraqis build a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself. We are building up Iraqi Security Forces as quickly as possible, so they can assume the lead in defeating the terrorists and insurgents. A major part of our mission is to train them so they can do the fighting and our troops can come home."

For those who say we cannot compare the war in Iraq with the war in Vietnam, these statements seem to confirm the desire of our administration to complete the Vietnamization of Iraq. Are they thinking we'll get it right this time, that "Iraqization" will work? Nixon thought his Vietnamization plan would get our troops home sooner.

Nixon in 1969: "As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater."
Bush in 2005: "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

Nixon said Vietnamization would work because the South Vietnamese were getting stronger.

Nixon in1969: "The South Vietnamese have continued to gain in strength."
Bush in 2005: "We have made gains in both the number and quality of those [Iraqi Security] forces."

Nixon said Vietnamization was the new way for America to assume the responsibility of spreading freedom.

Nixon in 1969: "The wheel of destiny has turned so that any hope the world has for the survival of peace and freedom will be determined by whether the American people have the moral stamina and the courage to meet the challenge of free world leadership."
Bush in 2005: "We know that this great ideal of human freedom is entrusted to us in a special way - and that the ideal of liberty is worth defending."

And finally, both insisted Vietnamization was the key to peace for future generations.

Bush in 2005: "We are…laying the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."
And Mr. Nixon: "I want it to end in a way which will increase the chance that [the soldiers'] younger brothers and their sons will not have to fight in some future Vietnam some place in the world."

Saturday, April 02, 2005

America Ex Nihilo: America out of Nothing

The Old Testament speaks of the unmanifested universe as a void, an unbounded sea of emptiness, swirling with an as yet undefined chaos, in the moments before Biblical creation. More like Arthur Clarke’s Jovian monolith than the blank-slated p’u of Taoism, both the Taoist blankness and the Biblical void are nonetheless similar in this respect: both principals refer to the being of nothingness before the creation of something begins.

In my understanding of the Taoist principal, the blank slate is the goal, the place you want to go so you can have a no-place from which to begin, kind of like showing up at a train station and not being nonplussed when you find yourself boarding a plane. In that way, all action stands independently, the result of commitment to and focus on that action.

Biblical Creation, on the other hand, is about an (arguably) logical progression from nothing to one thing that begets two things that beget four things, and on and on, right on through today to Judgement Day and Armageddon.

In America, at least, this Judeo-Christian belief lends hope and faith in tomorrow, that something new will happen, which will cause something else new to happen. Most of us believe that what we do has consequences, that we could take action and cause something wonderful and extraordinary to happen in the next moment that may not have been possible before.

Yet hiding from our perception of growth and replenishment is a singular truth - that regardless of how we live or are guided in our earthly lives, the indisputable destiny is the same: from the moment we are born, we are moving to decay and death, and so to a physical nothingness. So too the Earth, having been brought into existence, cannot be exempt from suffering its own decline and eventual destruction. It has been dying since “Let there be light,” for something cannot die until it first lives; it cannot be lost until it is had.

Nothing doesn’t always beget something. Sometimes, nothing begets nothing. But something always eventually becomes nothing. We are all, always, headed to nothingness.

America has been dying for 229 years, ever since Thomas Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be self evident…” because although there would be no United States without the established British colonies, this country would not have been possible unless the Founding Fathers were willing to accept a nation without King George’s rule.

They had to imagine an entity unruled in order to come up with a new country. “These truths,” wrote Jefferson. New truths. Our truths. Not George’s. That’s all great, but here’s the catch – now that we have a nation in which everyone is entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we have a country where the precious can be lost.

Perhaps Jefferson was empowered to write those words because we have evolved into a culture where we are willing to risk the most precious, even though we know that eventually it too will be gone. Perhaps he knew, even as his quill scratched the words on the page, that even in the best of nations his brand of populist idealism would eventually die.

But at the time, to Jefferson and our Founding Fathers, the “truths” were the light of creation. What are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but plants, animals and man, Eden and the joys of the feast, the pleasures of dreaming, the freedom to think and to act? All these were given to us to become a spectacular nation, and from the moment of their giving, our nation has been growing… and dying.

September 11, 2001 was a day that called to us to come from nothing. For “W” it was a day that gave him his special purpose. It is said that is the moment George W. Bush became president, and perhaps he took those infamous “My Pet Goat” moments to steel himself to perform his duties as he saw them.

As Brent Scowcroft was quoted as saying recently, “For the president… there was something unique, if not divine, about a catastrophe like 9/11 happening when he was president. That somehow that was meant to be, and his mission was to deal with the war on terrorism.”

So it is not surprising that when he woke from his “Pet Goat” reverie that morning, he saw the carrot of moral righteousness dangling in front of him and could not resist the temptation to bite it. From that day, through last year’s election and today, he will not let go, led by it like a fish on a line.

Moral righteousness is a sword too heavy for the hand of the humble, and too easily wielded by the hand of the indignant. Had Bush taken those moments in the kindergarten classroom and said to himself, “I have been humbled. America has been humbled,” perhaps he would have seen that “protecting and defending the Constitution” could be accomplished better by guaranteeing our freedom with the law, rather than curtailing it.

Moses fasted for forty days before receiving the Law on Sinai. Jesus humbly gave his spirit to God. Bush did not re-create himself, though, forgetting what it took to be “born-again”. His first reaction was sadly and unabashedly predictable. He let the temptations of leadership mislead him (supported in no small part by a Lucifer in the Justice Department and a lemming-like Congress).

He attacked both those who had done us harm and us. He took our power and replaced it with his own, and we did nothing. Except for a few Americans whose stories were buried by a press that was as cowardly as those who spoke out were brave, we failed. We failed to confront. We failed to protest. We failed as a nation to vote what the latest polls, at least, acknowledge as truth – we were all lied to.

We allowed Bush to continue, hoping with uncertainty that he would eventually see he must humble himself. We know he wants to, so why won’t he? When he was addicted to drugs, he humbled himself and was “born-again.”

Now, new demons control him. His heart has been hardened, and unless we are able to part the sea of lies, deceptions and secrecy with open, honest and fair words and actions, coming not from wounded hearts but from hearts of bottomless joy, we will all drown with him.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Cooperation and Consensus

I drove past a sign yesterday outside a middle school in my suburban Atlanta neighborhood. “The Word For This Week,” it informed me, is “COOPERATION.” Good word. Important word. I saw myself at twelve putting pencil to paper, scratching out what for me would have certainly been boilerplate drivel that I had written so much of in the first seven or eight years of my formally-delivered-casually-received education. The titles would be simple, like What Honesty Means to Me or Why Friends are Important. I wrote those early essays as if I were Dudley Do-right with a pen: self-righteous and saccharinely virtuous. Strictly Sally, Dick and Jane stuff.

I figured there would be similar titles written this week by the kids at the local middle school. There’s little Brandon, tongue hugging his upper lip, as he comes up with his not-too-original What Cooperation Means to Me. He’s twelve, an idealist, with all so perfect notions of what cooperation is and why it’s important. Maybe he’s going to talk about cooperation in his scout troop or his football team. Kid stuff.

Like Brandon, I was ready to deliver an upbeat message about cooperation, from the adult perspective of course, which meant it was not going to be kid stuff. Right here in the open notebook by my left elbow I have a couple of paragraphs about consensus and cooperation and community. Pffft! It’s crap! Total naivete.

It helps to think positive, but I cannot shut out the inevitability of its absence in a divided America and a dangerous world. That makes it even more important, right? But when a judge’s family is killed by a hate group** in Chicago because they think she’s Jewish (which she is not, which doesn’t matter) and anti-gay marriage laws passed in all the states they were on the ballot last year, it’s hard to get my head around the notion of communities being willing to work together in some kind of cooperation.

The remains of attempts at commonality, too often manifested through fist, stick and sword, rot and turn to dust below our feet, held in place by the gravity of dogma, sadly forgotten through time. Dogma, it seems, not only informs us of who we are, but also blinds us from what we can be. As long as people feel chained to belief systems, how can there be cooperation?

Maybe the problem is that I see cooperation as being the fruit of consensus, where people come together and agree to a common goal. And there it is: a common goal. Two boxers in the ring have a mutual understanding that they will likely beat each other bloody and one of them will win, but their goals are mutually exclusive. They each want to win. There can be no consensus with divergent goals, but there can be consent to cooperate with the process.

Even the two great Western religions –Judaism and Christianity - have a basis for cooperation. As the great twentieth-century scholar, AJ Heschel , said in a collection of essays edited by his daughter Susannah (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1996):

“The purpose of religious communication among human beings of different commitments is mutual enrichment and enhancement of respect and appreciation…
“There is an unfortunate history of Christian-Jewish disputations…which eventually degenerated into enmity…
“We honestly and profoundly disagree in matters of creed and dogma. Indeed, there is a deep chasm between Christians and Jews concerning, e.g., the divinity and messiahship of Jesus. But across the chasm we can extend our hand to one another.
“Religion is a means, not an end... To equate religion and God is idolatry.”

In the same way, it can be said that politics is “a means, not an end,” for just as religion is the personal pathway to God, personal politics is the pathway to what we all want. We can disagree with each other on political and social principals, but ultimately, we have the same goals: good government, fair government, and a better America.

So what are the pathways to some of our common goals? When we go into the voting booth, we cooperate with the process, consent to having our choices counted. For me, the process is not a search for the status quo, the lowest common denominator, but a reach toward the highest common good, the one who I think is likely to embody the possibility of creating the best society. That is my commitment.

Another pathway is right outside your front door. I’d like to think that we all are likely to choose what is best for our children, our neighbors, ourselves. I’d like to think that is a basis for cooperation. That’s why instead of waiting for our government representatives to reach across the proverbial aisle, we can start by reaching across the street. Be active. Create consensus. Maybe next election, your block can vote as a block.

So I guess that’s what cooperation looks like when you’re an adult. At least, that’s what it looks like to me.

** as it turns out, someone not associated with Matt Hale committed this crime, but the point is the same. Hale, btw, got a pretty hefty sentence for threatening the judge.

Monday, February 21, 2005

What's My Voice Worth?

They put it in letters to my representatives, in petitions to government agencies, and in surveys about my government. They include it with your restaurant check, on your Home Depot receipt, and I just got one from the guy who comes out periodically to service my furnace. We may never know who the “they” are, but the “it” is a place, block or card for my personal comments about the service that the interested agencies provide.

There may be some practical use for such feedback in the private sector. If I get a lazy waitron, I want to know that he or she will be given a talking to by the restaurant manager. If I walk through a pile of debris in a Home Depot aisle, I want to make sure someone even clumsier than I doesn’t actually hurt themselves under similar circumstances. And if the guy who comes to check my HVAC is rude (which he isn’t, by the way), I want a course of action.

But what about those petitions, letters and surveys, both online and direct mail, that I get from groups like NARAL, MoveOn.org and the DNC? Many of those have a section that begs to be typed in, like adding your own comments to a form letter to a congressman, or asking you what you think the Democrats did wrong last year that needs improving. I don’t know about you, but it’s harder for me to leave those solicitations for comment blank than it is to ignore the insecurities of a restaurant staff.

So I want to know why I am compelled to comment to someone who doesn’t provide a service with tangible rewards? Why, when I recently received the 2005 Survey from the Democratic National Committee, did I find it important to fill in their “ideas” box? Why? For the same reason I write this column - I want to know my voice will be heard.

But it’s frustrating. It’s so much unlike the private sector because I am held captive by my politics. There may be many entrances to the progressive mansion, but there’s still only one place I can go. It is as if my town only had a Wal-Mart and a K-mart, and I was forced to be loyal to the latter, despite its crappy selection, because I disliked the policies of the former.

So how can we be certain that our comments will yield results? It could easily be very much like the suggestion box at the office. Maybe someone reads it, and if they like it they may implement it; or, like in some offices, the suggestion box is a placebo that’s contents get dumped with the evening trash. I guess we’ll never know, but the great thing is, we get a chance to say them, and maybe, just maybe, someone will listen.

Monday, February 14, 2005

If He Only Weren't a Saint...

You may have heard some of your Jewish friends say that we do not celebrate Valentine’s Day. Valentine is, after all, a Christian saint. Personally, as with many things in my life, I experience a familiar, cultural guilt and angst every February 14, and those are not necessarily bad or unwelcome feelings for me. In spite of their weighty yoke, guilt about how I behave as a Jew and anxiety about how I behave when interacting with the rest of the world are so much a part of who I am that if I did not have them, I would probably miss them.

Eventually I stow the baggage and relent, ambiguously embracing the holiday by both resigning to it as a matter of course, and being lit up by it as a day of possibility and opportunity.

One way I can rationalize my participation in Valentine’s Day is by observing that it is not the only Christian or Pagan holiday I choose to celebrate with this kind of cognitive dissonance. Holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, even Mardi Gras and New Year’s (Sylvester), are all examples of my ability to suspend the connection between a holiday’s religious (or quasi-religious) meaning and an excuse to party.

Also, I dig love, both the romantic “being-in-it” kind and the platonic “kumbaya” kind. It deserves to be recognized and it is a feeling, in all its textures, that should not be taken for granted. Some of my married friends discovered they are not as excited about Valentine’s Day as they used to be. To them, the challenge of a successful romantic conquest is rendered mute by commitment. But if romance is that easily muted, then what’s the point of seeking it in the first place? At the very least, even for the guys, Valentine’s Day, like your anniversary, is an excuse to be romantic without worrying about looking mushy.

The philosopher and storyteller Martin Buber, in his “Tales of the Hasidim,” relates a story about a rabbi who distinguishes between a Jew’s love of people and a Jew’s love of books (meaning study and contemplation). He concludes that we love the enlightened solitude of books more because we know that outside our library or house of study, there will always be the people whom we love. But when we study, we do not do it for ourselves alone. Without our personal relationships, we cannot get closer to God, no matter how many books we read (or how hard we work to make a living).

Finally, love is as attainable as it is illusory. No matter how many times I have fallen for a woman or been kicked to the curb, I have felt love’s magic. For my wife alone, the magic is worth it, but it is not only my wife whom I love. For only my family and friends, it is worth it, but it is not only my friends and family I love. For only my time alone with my books and my God, it is worth it, but that is not all I love. It is the opportunity to love, the possibility of the experience. We present love on a stage where desire dances our hearts’ designs, flying to our partners, orbiting our friends, leaping to God, and that’s just how it starts.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Digesting the American Political Climate

In the months since the presidential election, and the weeks since the inauguration, the grumbling of politically progressive people has been long and low. Though the meal of democracy is often served on gilded china, it is not unusual for one to be left queasy by large, indigestible morsels that make the belly of a free nation rumble in discontent. How can we ever feel right about our country again?

In his book “Achieving America,” (1998, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA) author Richard Rorty says, “…there are many things that should chasten and temper…[American national] pride, but…nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect.” So there is hope in the gloom of political indigestion.

Rorty goes on to cite three choices that exist for those who have committed a “fundamentally” immoral act. (It is important to note that Rorty is referring to those who believe there is such a thing as basic “moral fact,” and that its violation is something akin to, if not directly, “sin.”) The three responses are suicide, self-loathing and promising not to repeat the error of one’s ways. But what if it is not individual redemption one seeks, but rather the “self-respect” of a community or a country?

When we commit what some might call a fundamentally immoral act as a nation, the country might survive, but what becomes of our nature? Do we fall on the sword, as Germany had to do after starting two world wars, the second one with unconscionable, amoral behavior, and leave it to the world to judge our moral standing?

Do we teach lessons of loathing of the national self, disgusted with the actions of our leaders and the people who voted to put them there? A lot of people were drowning in just such a sea of loathing after the 2004 election; talk among some progressives of leaving the United States for other, more like-minded countries was heard from Manhattan to Hollywood.

Lastly, do we move forward as a united country, loudly and widely acknowledging our mistakes as a key player on the world stage, and voicing a commitment never to engage in behavior that is counter to a global – rather than what may be a selfish, national – moral imperative? It seems such a response may serve the citizens of the United States and the world best, but that conclusion does not fit into a national psyche dealing with the trauma of September 11, 2001.

All of us, every American, cannot help but to view living here, now, through the filter of 9-11. For much of the country, the clouds of dust and debris that blanketed lower Manhattan settled into a haze through which they can see only sadness and hate, fear and distrust, revenge and an overwhelming sense of moral superiority. It is their right; people do not need our permission to feel that way. However, even though it is their right to do so, I assert my right to believe that feeling that way does not move the basic moral purpose of our nation forward. There can be no moral purpose in revenge, fear and hate. So how do we lift the veil for those blinded by this American tragedy?

I think if we show them America’s brightness, how the light of her open and free society serves and preserves our personal and national freedoms and keeps us secure, then the haze of hate and fear can be lifted. Instead of attacking them for the way they feel, we should acknowledge their fear and insecurities, the reasons for them, and then demonstrate by example what is possible for an America free of fear, free of hate, free of distrust.

It is an America of cooperation, of responsibility, of community. It is an America where there are more lessons to be learned from the way we handled, responded to, and continue to feel about 9-11, than from the horrific acts themselves. It is better to talk now about the mistakes made - in Washington, DC and in Iraq – than to let the dark haze of that day continue to thicken until there is only the barest pinhole of light coming from what was once a great and free country. Give voice to the bright light of America’s promise, and we will move forward, and the results of the next election might be easier to swallow.