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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.