Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Caught in a Landslide

How did we get ourselves into such a mess? I’m talking to you, liberals! Both of the major institutions I had faith in as a child–the Catholic church and the United States government–have gone to the dogs, and to the far right dogs, at that. I once believed both these institutions were, at their hearts, liberal organizations, liberal in the sense that they believed that service to the poorest in society is among the highest forms of good. I’ve discovered the shady history of the U.S. government since those days of blissful ignorance and faith. And I’ve dealt with the disappointment of realizing that Christianity–extremely liberal according to Christ himself–behaves generally as a bastion of hate, exclusion, and irrationality.

On the heels of the appointment of Benedict XVI, who promises to take the church back from the nineteenth century to the fourteenth, and of George W. Bush, who’d like to return us to the pre-Roosevelt 1930s, we are about to see the Supreme Court make a sharp turn to the right, perhaps aiding Bush in his return to the harsh old times, around when my grandparents were born. How did this happen?

Liberal groups were beseeching the president to appoint a moderate conservative in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor. Yeah, right. Why should he? George W. Bush is a man who knows no accountability to the American people. He has scarcely been stopped before; why should he expect any less now? Hello, there, Democrats! You’ve let him get away with the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind, tax rebates for millionaires and billionaires, reductions in Medicare/Medicaid, public money to religiously-based organizations, abstinence-only education, the abortion Gag Rule, and not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming. Of course, there are the biggies, too: lying to the gullible nation in order to start a war with Iraq is at the top. So is alienating the U.S. from the global community. And placing us on the edge of drilling for oil in Alaska. And then there’s passing laws that will regulate industry less and allow more mercury into our water and more carbon dioxide into our air. And appointing a trophy hunter to oversee wildlife on public lands. And right wing revenants to the federal judiciary.

Why should we expect anything less strident when it comes to the Supreme Court? We shouldn’t. Incidentally, in his land of no accountability, where hubris and machismo and the inability to adapt are repeatedly rewarded, why should he fire Karl Rove? The answer? He shouldn’t.

When I think about the Supreme Court, I imagine a liberal’s tragedy of errors. Liberals were blessed by Eisenhower’s appointment of long-lived moderate-to-liberal justices. But when Lyndon Johnson sacrificed the Great Society for the Vietnam War, he was destined to lose the presidency. Then Robert Kennedy was shot, and Chief Justice Earl Warren freaked out and realized he didn’t want Nixon to appoint his successor. He resigned; Johnson nominated scandal-plagued Abe Fortas; and Nixon found himself replacing both Warren and Fortas. So, Democrats, we have Johnson selling out the idea of a liberal society, Kennedy shot down, Johnson’s and Warren’s poor planning. Conceivably, without these disasters, we would have been spared a third of a century of William “Brown vs. Board was wrong” Rehnquist and contemplation of his current demise. (It amused me to see headlines saying he has no plans to retire. Let’s just write the honest truth: “Rehnquist Pledges to Die in Office”.)

Then, twice, liberals have gained a voice on the court by sheer dumb luck. Ford appoint John Paul Stevens, a true maverick with a strong liberal streak; and Bush the first was too scared to appoint someone who had a record, so we have David Souter, who ranges from a moderate conservative to liberal. Thanks, Republicans! So nice of you to keep that 5-4 balance in tact for us when we couldn’t do it ourselves!

Perhaps the saddest moment was when civil rights forefather Thurgood Marshall, elderly, ill, and anticipating (as most folks did in 1990) a Bush reelection in 1992, retired, allowing his record to be desecrated by conservative purveyor of alleged (how I hate that word) sexual harassment, Clarence Thomas. I remember that Edward Kennedy voted for him. I was stunned that, out of fear of rejecting a black justice, a heavily Democratic Senate would approve a man so clearly hostile to the causes of women, minorities, and the poor. If Marshall had done what Rehnquist is doing–held on til death–Clinton would have named his successor, and it would have created an opportunity for a real liberal to win easy confirmation to the court. (Whether Clinton would have seized the opportunity is another question.) The same was true of William Brennan, who seemed to have given up in his old age as the reelection of the elder Bush seemed inevitable.

Then comes 2000, when the Supreme Court got to decide the election, the bare majority tilted toward the thief from the party whose presidents had appointed seven of the nine justices. In retrospect, that decision caused me to lose respect for Justice O’Connor. If she were, indeed, the reasonable, centrist justice celebrated in the media lately, how could she have cast a deciding vote for election fraud? As with most people who swing with the wind, a moment of moral crisis often finds them too weak to resist the dominating power of corruption. I am further pressed to wonder: if she expected her retirement was imminent (her husband was already sick), why didn’t she retire in 2004 to assure Bush the replacement of her successor? Is there any chance that she was hoping for Kerry to replace her with a justice more likely to be moderate, in her own image? Why doesn’t the media, with all their hours of idle chatter, speculate about juicy questions like this?

So, today, thanks to the poor timing of Warren, Marshall, and Brennan, and due to the gutlessness of the Democrats who failed to prevent the confirmation of Thomas, we sit poised on the brink of a takeover of the Supreme Court by radical right wing conservatives. Should we be surprised? Certainly not. Might we suspect that the impending change to the court is anything other than the culmination of a well-organized, decades-long plan? Probably not. That’s why it’s time for liberals, especially the Democrats among them, to begin putting together a plan of their own, and the begin acting on it with the utmost urgency.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

What Service Could Mean

We all want to believe the work we do is valuable.

That’s the best conclusion I could make after casual conversations recently with two men who have sons stationed in the Middle East. As someone firmly against the war, and with no close friends who support the war, I look at the issue of war in Iraq and Afghanistan not through the lens of visceral fear and anxiety over loved ones, but as a question of right and wrong.

Shortly after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan and well before the invasion of Iraq, I knew that these wars were another instance of a rich man using poor people to protect the purported “interests” of the U.S.–which were actually just the assets of billionaires and multi-millionaires, people content to exploit the beauty, resources, and people of the earth for their own greed. Homeland security, for the most part, was the ruse under which such exploitation would again be possible.

I also want to be clear that I don’t particularly think that peace is patriotic and that I am not a patriot. I don’t feel the need to make excuses for my belief in peace or to assimilate it within the current language of patriotism. I don’t believe that nationalism or jingoism–the real names for patriotism, I believe–are healthy for anyone. They are bad for the environment and the health of the planet, bad for the quality of life in communities, and bad for the rights of each individuals to shape his or her own mind and existence. Exploitation is the root, base, and defining factor of what we call civilization–a concept intimately linked with the control of wealth, which today exists as capitalism. So, I’m not a patriot and I really don’t care who is one. Neither am I a hero, nor do I think the concept of a hero as a rescuer is a particularly healthy one.

So, when thinking about the children of these men I met, I began to frame the issue as one of work. I don’t mean simply to confine this to the idea of man as laborer or as employee, but to look more broadly, in a nearly religious sense, at all we do (our deeds) and to see them as work. We call what we do “good works and deeds” or “evil deeds”, and each of us has a “life’s work” to do. With any luck, we all hope that our contribution to the world will be positive and meaningful. We compare our work to our beliefs and values, and determine whether our work has worth.

As a teacher, I frequently reflect on my work and wonder, is it valuable? Am I serving a worthwhile community? Am I teaching according to my values? Does my job integrate well with the values of my life, or do I have to check my values at the door when I go to work? Does my work fit with my goals for society and the world? Am I growing in relationship to my values–patience, tolerance, flexibility, for instance–through my work?

I believe that people in the service of the country are doing so because of deeply held beliefs that their work will do similar things: help spread their goals for society and the world, make themselves better individuals, help serve a community, affirm their values. Spreading freedom might be their goal. Or, they may be trying to assure that innocent individuals–children not unlike their own, for example–are safe and secure. They may desire to travel, to experience new cultures, to challenge everything they’ve ever known and believed, to discover their own limits–physical, spiritual, and psychological. All of these goals are legitimate uses of our time as human beings. They reflect the curiosity, generosity, idealism, and goodness any person should be proud to maintain and work for.

Hence my outrage at George W. Bush and his wealthy cadre of capitalist friends who are exploiting the earnest goodness of American service members. While Bush takes weeks and weeks of vacations, while his daughters party on, while Dick Cheney’s Halliburton rakes in the dough, thousands of honest young Americans die under hostile fire in the heat of deserts far from loved ones. Yet, for all their sacrifices, service members ask only that their mission be worthwhile, that it begin and end with the values they hold dear. And George W. Bush and friends have taken advantage of those good intentions. They have pushed American service members into battle for the sake of corporate greed, easy markets, and profits that only the wealthiest few will ever share. These are the only reasons we ever go to war, but manipulation of emotions and values are the way leaders continue to make exploitation palatable to American citizens, their primary victims.

Bush himself cannot properly defend the war because all his expressed reasons–freedom, democracy, security–are founded on a lie. He cannot state the real reason for this war or any war, which is uninterrupted extraordinary wealth for a small class of individuals. His cheerleading will never make sense until his true intentions become clear, and continued occupation of Iraq would be impossible were the truth revealed.

Having founded his war on one set of fallacies, Bush and his government must perform yet one more manipulative act of trickery on service members and civilians. The government must convince us that we can only be responsible citizens if we believe their lie. They must deceive us into believing that knowing and speaking the truth make us evil and in opposition to the soldiers risking their lives abroad. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. Bush and his government are inimical to America’s military. Those against the war, and war in general, are the best friends America’s servicemembers could have.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Crash Into Me, Babe

I saw the movie Crash this week. It is the sort of film that it’s hard not to discuss after it’s over. The cast of Paul Haggis’s Crash is chock-full of all-stars, and it was playing this week at our local, independent movie house in Montpelier, The Savoy. My two most likely movie buddies were unavailable, so I saw it alone. The only disadvantage was being unable to process its intensity with anyone afterwards. Here are some of the ideas that have lingered since my viewing.

Crash seems to be driven by three main elements. The first is the premise: a number of Los Angeles residents, generally living in a state of alienation, crash into each other, physically and figuratively. A plethora of subplots are provided by a host of characters: the district attorney and his wife, two carjackers, a movie producer and his wife, two police officers and a father, a health care worker, a smuggler, a detective and his mother, a locksmith and his family, and a shopkeeper and his family. While such arrangements in other films may leave me lost and confused, Crash makes no such mistakes. Each story intertwines with several others, showing how, in the absence of understanding, people from disparate backgrounds continue to have profound effects on one another.

A second element is race in America. The characterizations only begin to take shape if I mention that it’s a white D.A., a black car jacker, a light-complexioned black movie producer, a Persian shopkeeper, a Latina housekeeper, an Asian... you get the picture. The show includes racially-based statements of all sorts, from mild epithets to both subtle and direct insults that provoke a varying degree of cringes. Crash jumps headlong into racial issues, at times providing parodies of both itself and the challenges of tolerance and political correctness. It was a bit irritating, in a theater stocked with aging hippies, to hear audience members hissing and commenting on some of the initial slurs. As their relevance to the show and the depth of characterizations became clear, however, pithy expressions of tolerance gave way to the silence earned by the complexity of the film.

Without the third element of violence–or really, the fragility of life– would not move as it does, with constant immediacy. The show begins with a car accident and the discovery of a dead body. Then, the setting returns to the previous day, and nearly the rest of the film builds to the scene where the movie started. While it’s clear that at least one person has to die, it’s entirely unclear as to whom that will be. Guns, accidents (both vehicular and individual), and homocidal intentions permeate the lives of the characters. While the plot can be an emotional roller coaster, sometimes dancing on the edge of Hollywood artificiality and feeling free to tinker with our emotions, each turn of events is ultimately rooted in the motivation of the individual characters.

The only exception is that one character, a health care worker played by Loretta Devine, seems to derive all of her motivation from an aggregate frustration with racism in America, and is set off by a caller telling her that her name, Shanequa, explains her attitude. Unfortunately, she lacks a personal story and the depth of other characters, and when she weaves back into the story at the end, it’s random in a way that is disappointing in light of the way the rest of the film comes together. This would be the fault of the writers, however, as Devine’s performance is as articulate and evocative as ever.

It is the complexity of nearly every character in Crash, however, that makes this story so gripping and worthwhile. There are no good guys and no bad guys. The best-intentioned characters take the most ill-considered actions, and the worst-intentioned are fully developed and can elicit sympathy as they become tangled in the ironies and contradictions of their own circumstances.

This movie doesn’t rest. It pulls the audience along as it carefully threads each character’s story into those of the others, and it jars us into sudden awareness with the kind of moral and ethical conflicts we face every day. Crash is well-written and tells an important story. It is open, non-didactic, and unwilling to make judgments on the issues of race and violence. Go see it, and take umbrage in a film that gives each member of the audience enough grist to come to individual conclusions, and better yet, that encourages the observer to dwell in complexity and avoid simplistic conclusions about what are, literally and figuratively, too often seen as black and white issues.