Saturday, December 26, 2009


Once, when Nate and I were discussing the way I parented him, he said that he always thought of me as too self-centered to be a really good father. He seemed to think that often when I was around the house, around him, I wasn't really present. Except, maybe to get angry with him when he distracted me from the things I was focussed on.

I defended myself. I don't remember exactly what I said. Something about how much I thought about him all the time. I tried to make it sound like the way I thought about him was on an emotional level equal in some way to the power of my perceived absence. I don't think he bought it, but he had the mature grace to let me pretend that he was persuaded.

But--and this is why I'm actually blogging on the day after Christmas--Nate was right. I was quite self-centered (still am, I guess) and I wanted to get it written down here so that I couldn't take it back.

Still, let me try to extract something of value from this. Three things, really. I'm proud of Nate, of the adult he has become. I hope Nate knows that he is right in his understanding of how much more I could have done for him and with him. And, I hope all of us understand that every day is a chance to do better.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Guaranteed Upside of Down

Closing one’s eyes,
a key to revelations,
shocking moments,

Rest, as well,
but in this case,
facing mid-winter

Closing one’s eyes,
key to the déjà vu
experience of this

And to the never
before seen
experience of this

Closing one’s eyes,
ranging to remote
and to exotica and to
right here, right now

If you can withstand
the vibe, rhythm, shake,
rattle, roll, bangin’,
clangin’ and sweet singin’
of right here, right now

Long enough to be deep
in the remote, in the erotica
of this place, this right here,
right now

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bad Health Care Bill Is Better Than None

The hard road to a more perfect democracy

The health care bill that hopefully will pass in the Senate on Christmas Eve isn't final. The finalized legislation will be negotiated between House and Senate conferees early next year. But it seems safe at this point to make a few observations about what the Health Care Reform struggle 2009-2010 will do or has done.

• It has helped clarify just how dysfunctional Congress is (see Ruth Marcus' "The next decade from hell?" Washington Post, Dec. 23 here or Richard Cohen's "An imperfect ray of hope," Washington Post, Dec. 22 here).

• It exposed some members of the Senate, like Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) or Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) as particularly repellant (see Michael Gerson's "For sale: One senator (D-Neb.). No principles, low price." Washington Post, Dec. 23 here or Eugene Robinson's "Health-care hardball," Washington Post,Dec. 18 here).

• It created opportunity for Republican members of the Senate to raise the bar for hypocrisy. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority leader and his caucus did everything they could to keep health care reform in any form from passing, including forcing Democrats to get 92 year-old Sen. Byrd (D-W Va.) to haul himself and his wheelchair to the Senate for roll call votes three times in the last week. They relentlessly criticized every compromise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) brokered in an effort to get something passed. Hearing Sen. Lindsay Graham (D-SC) on NPR denounce the admittedly repugnant deal with Ben Nelson, as though Graham was a disappointed advocate for a better bill, seemed somewhat like we had all fallen down a large rabbit hole. Other Republicans seemed to be wishing for fate in the form of, say, a sudden illness that would prevent Democrats from rounding up 60 votes. It boggles the mind that Republicans have seemingly decided their obstructionist behavior and petty cruelties improve their chances of success in the 2010 mid-term elections.

• It will result in a bill that will dismay virtually every Democratic voter (see Harold Meyerson's "For unions, a messy bargain," Washington Post, Dec. 23, here), but it is a start; that fact will prove to be more important than many disappointed advocates are likely to believe (see Eugene Robinson's "Carpe health reform," Washington Post, Dec. 22, here or Henry J. Aaron's "Health-reform legislation would accomplish more than critics admit," Washington Post, Dec. 18, here).

• It confirmed that there is a senator for the rest of us. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont worked diligently to make a bad bill as promising as possible (see Katrina Vanden Heuvel's post on The Nation's website, Dec. 22, here).

It seems to be a general perception that if the US electorate were as sophisticated as the Western European demos, we would have a democracy that provided national healthcare, assumed international leadership on global warming and invaded fewer foreign countries, but that's probably not a helpful comparison. We should measure our democracy by the effort we put in to improving it, by the quality of our encounters with political opponents, and by the accumulated progress we make. As Eugene Robinson pointed out in "Carpe health reform," the US may continue for some time to come to use wealth and work as a means to ration health care, but with President Obama's signing of the health care reform bill early next year, we will, for the first time, "enshrine the principle that all Americans deserve access to medical care regardless of their ability to pay." We should celebrate that achievement while we are also working on the peace dividend, affordable housing, quality public education. and clean air and water.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snowboarding in DC

Does climate change come with that?

DC's 14-inch Saturday snowstorm is history. And, in fact, four days later the snow is more than half gone. But it will live on in local lore--probably forever. It will certainly live on in Brendan's memory. He managed to snowboard three days in a row. He never did that in Chicago, which gets far more snow than DC residents could tolerate, because there are no boardable hills in Chicago.

All three days in DC, some combination of Brendan, Marrianne and I slogged half a mile through drifts and wound up at a hill. A similar slog to a hill in Chicago would probably end up somewhere in Wisconsin; though there is an artificial sledding hill on the lakefront just north of McCormick Place. Marrianne and Brendan did have to journey from there one time after the car battery died. They walked, broke fresh trail through snowdrifts, took bus and train, and made it home. They arrived pretty bedraggled. Based on that experience (and other facts known to me) I don't think any of us would survive a winter hike to Wisconsin.

Considering that snowboarding only developed as a sport in the last 20 years or so, and that it has been pretty much confined to places that actually have winter, Brendan might be the first person ever to snowboard in DC on three consecutive days. Though I put in good effort crafting the snowboard run, I didn't ride it.

Still, it was good winter sport for me, too. And, as any long-time Midwesterner could testify, winter weather sometimes presents painful challenges, but vigorous outdoor play in winter is both exhilarating and the stuff of fond memory. Brendan has some such memories from living in Chicago for eight winters, but now he will have a rare thing, a DC winter weather memory.

Anyway, I started wondering whether global warming would jeopardize our collective chances for winter experiences in the future that subsequently become fond memories. So, though you cannot google "will global warming jeopardize our collective chances for winter experiences in the future that subsequently become fond memories," I did a little checking up and, I'm happy to report that with global warming we will still have winters. And, more good news, our winters might be milder, but have worse storms. Doesn't that sound nice?

Of course, there's the usual bad news; we'll be breathing increasingly toxic mixes of air (more carbon dioxide, more methane, less oxygen), but maybe we'll have more hallucinations, too. You have to admit that would be a sort of silver-lining. Regardless, here is a selection of the "key messages" extracted from something called "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" (you can find the paper posted on Scribd):
• Projections of future precipitation generally indicate that northern areas will become wetter, and southern areas, particularly in the West, will become drier.
• The amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours has increased approximately 20 percent on average in the past century, and this trend is very likely to continue, with the largest increases in the wettest places.
• Many types of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and regional droughts, have become more frequent and intense during the past 40 to 50 years.
• Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.

There are other messages we're getting about global warming, as well. These messages range widely, but we can ignore, for now, the ones about conspiracies of climate change scientists, and technology-will-fix-it, and twenty-years-ago-they-were-predicting-global-winter. Let's instead focus only on the notion that what happened at Copenhagen wasn't good enough. I know progressives are distressed that Obama has failed to push the envelope in so many ways. Banks and brokers still seem to be getting away with murder or, at least, most of the cash; there won't be another stimulus that focuses more closely on working people; and there won't be universal payer, or, even, a public option.

But Obama didn't keep the world from making good progress toward reducing carbon emissions, that clearly wasn't happening; he got to Copenhagen late in the process and talked to China, India and Brasil. That engagement should seem to everyone like a huge change in the US attitude toward the rest of the world. All by itself that change should be more than enough to keep everyone talking. Continued discussion means hope, hope that there really will be a climate change treaty that will reduce and reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the next year or two. If that does happen, it won't be Obama who stands in the way of treaty ratification by the US Senate, it will be Republicans. If people really want to do something about climate change, then they ought to be working to elect Democrats and keep them focused on important things. Blaming Obama for lack of progress on all the things we want to change won't cut it.

Copenhagen turns out to be just one more stop on the way to making something earth-shaking happen. That's what it will take to reduce human contributions to global warming. But that's what it should take to save the planet--something earthshaking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

American Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Jews are not the tail wagging the dog of American policy

"Support for Israel is another part of this worldview," writes Kevin Phillips. "In mid-2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another survey taken for the Pew Center found 63 percent of white evangelical Protestants calling the state of Israel a fulfillment of the biblical policy of the second coming of Jesus, whereas only 21 percent of mainline Protestants did so. (pg. 364, Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century)"

Henry Herskovitz, a long-time friend from whom I am now estranged, leads a Saturday morning vigil at Temple Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Mi., protesting Jewish support for Israel's theocratic state and illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Years ago, Henry came to the conclusion that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unjust and largely the result of scheming and manipulation by Jewish neo-cons in the Bush administration and Jewish organizations like AIPAC (the American-Israel Political Action Committee). Jewish communities in the United States were further implicated, in Henry's estimation, by the millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel raised by Jewish organizations around the country. Further, Henry saw analogies to the now defunct South African system of apartheid in Israel's denial of certain rights and privileges to its Arab citizens and its confinement of Palestinians behind roadblocks, checkpoints and walls. American Jews, Henry noted, were a significant presence in the American domestic opposition to apartheid. Why, Henry wondered were American Jews so absent from public opposition to the oppression of Palestinians?

After trips to Iraq and to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, Henry returned to the U.S. with photographs, stories and a fervent desire to speak to Jewish congregations about the injustices visited on Palestinians by the state of Israel, injustices occurring, at the very least, with the silent acquiescence of American Jews. His overtures to three Ann Arbor temples and synagogues were rebuffed, sometimes rudely, by the rabbis who maintained absolute control over access to their congregations. So Henry, supported by a few other reliable vigilers, began his Saturday morning silent protest (with signs), a protest that continues some four years later.

The vigil has provoked much debate in Ann Arbor. The City Council has condemned the vigils as an affront to religious freedom and Henry has found himself much reviled in a variety of forums, including the pages of the Ann Arbor News (RIP). Powerful disagreements over the vigil tactic and message have also divided the sizable peace community in town. From time to time, Henry and his allies extend the protests to major fundraising events within the Jewish community and to public events focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At every opportunity, Henry calls on high-profile visitors to Ann Arbor who support, or claim to support, Palestinian self-determination to express their support for a one-state solution in Palestine and their opposition to a Jewish theocratic state.

Henry seems to believe that his tactics work. Or, at the very least, believes that the dire state of the Palestinian people justifies his activism, even if he, himself, is demonized and neither he nor his colleagues seem able to engage local Jewish congregations in dialogue.

It seems to me that the basic problem with Henry's strategy is the assumption that without Jewish neo-cons and Jewish organizational support there would have been no invasion of Iraq and no significant and continuing American political support for Israel. But self-identified Jews make up only one percent of the population of the United States, while the evangelical Protestants cited in the Kevin Phillips quote that leads off this post make up as much as a third of the population--fifty times the Jewish population of the country. It may be an unhappy irony that American Christian fundamentalists, long indifferent to or unhappy with the presence of Jews in American society, are enthusiastic supporters of Jewish rule in Palestine, but only in places like Ann Arbor, where fundamentalists are less evident than Jews, could it look to an observer as though Jews are the whole problem.

Make no mistake, the attitudes of a sizable number of American Jews are an obstacle to a workable Middle East peace. And American military support for Israel has helped to build a garrison state in Israel that would have otherwise been bankrupted by its own military spending. That same support has allowed Israel to divert funding from other domestic needs to the construction, in violation of international law, of housing and settlements on Palestinian territory. The settlements, in turn, have become both the passion of increasingly fundamentalist Jews who see all of biblical Israel as territory promised to the Jews by God, and the anguish of Palestinians who see them as an obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

It is a further irony that the polarization in Ann Arbor has come to resemble the deadlock in Palestine. But both situations seem a symptom of a larger problem in the politics of the US. Our inability to move toward reasonable and just outcomes in virtually all policy areas, health care, climate change, quality public education, market regulation, reliable public transit and reduced dependence on fossil fuels to name just a few, seems endemic. And ultimately traceable to the politically expedient marriage of religious fundamentalism and corporate interests. When oil companies, weapons manufacturers, Big Pharma, insurance interests, hospital corporations and the Southern Baptist Convention find themselves working together against broader social interests, we are all in trouble.

Under the circumstances, doing nothing seems profoundly dysfunctional. Doing something, even vigiling at a single Jewish temple in Ann Arbor must seem better than acquiescence. Certainly, relying on a Democratic president and a Democratic congress seems risky. So far, we have a possible shot at health care reform without a public option, a possible withdrawal from Afghanistan after a Bush-like surge, a near-trillion dollar bailout of unregulated banks, and a continuing and appallingly large military budget. But I continue to believe that in the Obama administration, at least, there is hope. Activism aimed at being heard, at repeating essential truths, at calling for less militarism and more justice, and at insisting on dialogue, is essential. I believe that through such activism we can reach this administration and slowly change policy. But activism that polarizes communities and eliminates any chance for dialogue is hopeless, and part of the problem. It is not enough to speak out. The will to dialogue must be present and powerful.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Water Sport

With every thing to lose,
we should be sure to test
all prescriptions we endorse.
So, run ourselves a nice, warm bath,

the sort where we linger and lounge
until the water cools. Step in,
sit down, ease back, ears underwater
listening to our life pulsing, waves rolling in.

Nice, warm, wet to sopping washcloth
over nose and mouth, inhale, exhale,
head further back, inhale, water trickles in,
breathing harder now, fighting panic, inhaling,

fighting to breathe, sitting up abruptly,
breathe hard, breathe grateful, repeat,
head back, nice, warm, wet to sopping washcloth,
say “ve vant names, giff us names, you must

tell us of ze evil plots against us,”
inhale through water invading nose,
mouth, lungs, fight rising panic, fight to breathe,
to breathe, to breathe and up. Breathing gratefully deeply.

Now chuckle audibly and say this:
The United States of America does not torture and
repeat nice, warm, wet to sopping washcloth over
nose and mouth, fight to breathe, feel the anger and

fear invading nose, mouth, lungs and panic,
panic, panic. Think we 300 million witnesses
to trauma, we Chuck and Larry, Carlos and Jamal,
Sandra and Casandra, we Amina and Judith,
we who stood by, silent witnesses to torture.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flowing to the Sea

At an address slid gracefully from memory,
the welcoming light, a tiny bulb nestled in
a frosted glass bowl, a glowing egg cradled
in a translucent hand, filtered upward
through a black, steel disc
poked about with tiny holes,
slouching like some flattened hat.
The distant ceiling, in focus, then out,
circled lazily, the arrangement of lights
a wheeling constellation across a firmament
hovering above the wayfarer moving on
to a portal opening on a lowering sky
dripping rain backlit by stars
speaking radiantly through a skylight
recently installed for the person
long forgotten, size, face and gender
unrecalled, oblivious to me passing by
to further spaces, growing in simplicity,
caressed by warm nocturnals, gentle as rose petals,
where I stood in some flowing garment
soon shed for nakedness on the silent sand,
toes drinking the lap of the primordial sea,
awaiting what will come.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Humanity, Flawed and Faithful

Warrior religions fail the spirit

The creative moment loses its uplifting, transcendent power the instant one becomes aware of its occurrence. In that moment we are human and flawed, again. But in so far as we are capable of another flash of creativity and another, we may continue the hunt.

Most often, I do this only half-heartedly. But I am occasionally moved to try harder by the thought passed on to me a couple of years ago by a child who quoted Picasso: “Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”

Uninspired and unheroic struggle with my own very human flaws has become, very nearly, my home address. When I leave home, and return there, I generally travel secular pathways, but it’s clear that there are myriad ways to and from the hard truth that each of us can find the roots of our individual undoing in our own selves.

The Catholic Church, for instance, calls that understanding ‘original sin’—a suitable, if also fraught, metaphor. The church teaches believers to respond to this incompleteness with prayer, communion and a variety of other ritual practices, which can and do move some believers to an ecstatic experience of the presence of god, or wholeness. But the church has long gone wrong in creating, developing and maintaining the institutionalization of a set of responses that are, in practice, anything but metaphorical (e.g., confession, priestly dispensations, withholding of communion).

Writer Karen Armstrong, once a Catholic nun, regards theology as a creative art, on a par with, say, poetry. Without Armstrong’s help this comparison would never occur to me, but when I read her book, The History of God, I grasp, incompletely and perhaps incoherently, the joy that others have found in contemplating god. In her memoir, The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong describes her intellectual and spiritual development from the time she left the convent to the period, about 15 years later, in which she researched and wrote The History of God.

In The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong writes about the delight she extracts from the wisdom of prophets, mystics and theologians working in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faith traditions. Her experience may seem unremarkable, but the way she writes about the spiritual inquiries of these Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers is so compelling and illuminating that I can feel what she means.

“The myth of the Holy Grail was a watershed in the spiritual development of the West. It turned the crusading ethos on its head. Instead of marching to their adventure in the huge, massed armies of the Crusades, the Grail knights embarked on a solitary quest, riding into the forest alone,” she writes.

“The destination of the Grail knights is not the earthly city of Jerusalem but the heavenly city of Saras, which has no place in this world. The forest represents the interior realm of the psyche, and the Grail itself becomes a symbol of a mystical encounter with God. By the thirteenth century, when the Grail legend began to take root in Europe, the people of the West were finally ready to develop a more spiritualized form of Christianity. And when I started work on A History of God, I too began to focus on my inner life (pg. 269).”

It’s probably stating the obvious for me to observe that I couldn’t arrive at the understanding of the Grail legend that Armstrong does without her help. Further, it wouldn’t occur to me to leap from that understanding to the far more mystical perception that all wanderers are seeking something, frequently a something that makes individual humans into unique beings. That, she says, is one of the goals of every religion.

But she also writes, later on, that the highest goal of “all the great faiths” is to teach compassion because “it dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.” (pg. 296)

Any approach to life that tries to teach us how to achieve an understanding of ourselves that becomes complete when we can let go of that self is wrestling with some very basic human contradictions. It seems reasonable to think a theology so open to such a journey is a form of art, and to believe that the seers and theologians engaged in such faith practices are artists. It therefore makes practical sense to think that the great faith traditions offer effective ways to deal with the moments in the lives of individuals when hope, optimism and confidence have given way to apathy, defeatism and despair.

But for many this option does not exist, precisely because organized religions of all sorts have sometimes positioned themselves on the side of power, exclusivity and harsh judgment. Ultimately, the great faiths, all of them, probably, but the three Abrahamic faiths, certainly, have histories and institutional realities that are anything but poetic, and far from compassionate. Though the histories of the three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, vary greatly in their details, their core ethical traditions have sometimes been undermined by the political roles they have played in the world.

The Catholic Church has been a political power dating back to the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE, on the eve of the battle that would make him emperor in Rome. The date marks the historical moment “when the power of the empire became joined to the ideology of the Church,” wrote James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword. In the 1,700 years since, the Church has done some very bad things—the Crusades, forced conversions of nonbelievers, the Inquisition, periodic calls for holy war, a near blind eye to the Holocaust, the subordination of women, to name just a few.

Islam has also been at times, a triumphal, warrior religion, the nearly exact opposite of a compassionate faith, but as an American taught about Islam through the casual use of myth and insult, I must assume that most anything I have to say about the history of Islam has a very good chance of adding to the insults. Regardless, Islam has also, in many places become an institutionalized partner of and collaborator with the wealthy and powerful, though in most instances, the excesses of the institutionalized faith have been orders of magnitude lower than the excesses of Christianity. Nevertheless, in many places Islam has been a tool for concentrating power in authoritarian hands, persecuting nonbelievers, subordinating women and rationalizing terrorist attacks on civilian targets.

As the faith of a scattered and powerless people for most of the last two millennia, Judaism has less to apologize for. But over the last half of the 20th century through to the present, Judaism, and the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, in particular, has provided rationale and cover for the institutionalization and expansion of Israel, a colonial, apartheid and garrison state that has dispossessed the Palestinian people and appropriated their land in clear and constant violation of international law.

That Judaism, like the other Abrahamic religions, has become in some way a mere nationalist ideology matters greatly to Palestinians, Israelis, American Jews and a good portion of the rest of the world, especially those people and groups who feel strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though I was raised in an at least minimally observant Jewish family, I reached adulthood with a pronounced disinterest in Judaism. But Jewishness was something different; I believed that being raised in a Jewish family living in a largely Jewish neighborhood had defined me, marked me in some ways as an outsider in a Christian country, but also given me the tools and attitudes with which to make my way in that space. In my mid-30s, I made my way to a staff position with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

At the time, I considered myself an entirely secular peace and justice activist, but one who had encountered and admired other activists whose moral concerns were rooted in the ethical concepts of their faith. These were largely Christian activists, whose Christian beliefs were frequently evident, but never oppressive to me.

But with AFSC, I encountered many more people whose activism was rooted in their Quaker background. These Quakers, also called Friends, were the inheritors of their coreligionists who founded AFSC in 1917 as a way for Quaker youth in the United States to perform alternative service during World War I. The experience of working with so many activists at AFSC whose motivation grew out of their Christian beliefs moved me greatly, encouraging me to seek in Jewish beliefs one of the ethical wellsprings of my own activism.

Of course, one never knows how much self-deception or self-congratulation is involved in defining the shape of one’s own conscience. But allowing for ego and for my failures as a peace and justice activist, there seems to be quite a lot in the history of Judaism that might motivate activism. Such Jewish understandings as the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt or the rabbinic teaching from the time of Jesus, himself, that to save or preserve a single life is to save an entire universe seem a quite sufficient foundation for standing for peace and justice in the modern world.

But the late-20th century history of mainstream American Judaism, following Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war against Syria and Egypt is largely the story of a transformed faith. Synagogue-based Judaism became Zionist, became a religion with a political focus on Israel. Writer Norman Finkelstein, a child of Holocaust survivors, observes that after the ’67 war, “American Jewish elites suddenly discovered Israel…for American Jewry, as well as the United States, Israel became a strategic asset (Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, pg. 21).”

In his book, Finkelstein describes the sudden conversion of faith experienced by prominent American Jews after Israel’s stunning military victory. “Lucy Dawidowicz, the doyenne of Holocaust literature, had once been a ‘sharp critic of Israel.’ Israel could not demand reparations from Germany, she railed in 1953, while evading responsibility for displaced Palestinians: ‘Morality cannot be that flexible.’ Yet almost immediately after the June war, Dawidowicz became a ‘fervent supporter of Israel,’ acclaiming it as ‘the corporate paradigm for the ideal image of the Jew in the modern world’ (pg. 22).”

Before 1967, Diaspora Jews would sometimes pray to return to Jerusalem and the land of Israel. But such prayers were far from universal among Jews and frequently reflected a longing to be anywhere but where they lived, most particularly in the 19th Century Jewish settlements of eastern Europe and western Russia. But if one accepts that the history of the Jewish people began some 3800 years ago with Abraham, Jerusalem plays only a small part, and frequently a merely symbolic part, in overall Jewish history. Jewish faith practices, religious beliefs and rituals, and intellectual history developed fully and completely outside of Jerusalem and, for the most part, in homes and synagogues, with no need for a temple or a holy city. In point of fact, Jerusalem’s evolved status as a holy city was far more dependent on Christian theology and Christian warriors, like the Crusaders, whose triumphant entry into Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 included a massacre of Jewish and Muslim residents of the city.

In the same spirit, these Christian warriors had begun their crusade “by slaughtering the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley (Armstrong, A History of God, pg. 197).” Jewish residents of the Holy Roman Empire might well have longed to be somewhere other than the Rhine alley, but knowing where the crusaders were headed, it’s highly unlikely that they would have wished to be in Jerusalem.

But after 1967, “next year in Jerusalem,” became a central concept in the order of Jewish Passover seders in the United States, superseding the more empathic stance of remembering when we were slaves in Egypt. And the universal moral lesson of the experience of the Holocaust, “never again,” morphed to the more particular understanding that Jews, themselves, would never be safe without the security of a nation-state. That state, frequently celebrated by Jews and (primarily apocalyptic) Christians as the only democratic state in the Middle East is more precisely the only Jewish theocratic state in the world.

Perhaps none of this should matter to a nonobservant Jew, but somehow it does. I am, despite everything a Jew. But I cannot embrace the mainstream version of Zionist Judaism, which refuses to identify with the suffering of the displaced Palestinian people. In establishing a theocratic Jewish state in Palestine and asserting an exclusive right to portions of that land, Judaism has become a warrior faith in exactly the same way that Christianity became a warrior faith so long ago. If I embrace such a Judaism, I cannot comfort myself or others with the compassion and empathy that marked rabbinic Judaism for two millennia. I’ve tried many times to define the Judaism that I can embrace. I do not feel particularly successful in that effort, but my poem, “Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian,” tries to outline a Jewishness that is not triumphalist.

Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

I am Jewish because the love of others made me so.
I am Jewish because I grew up on the south side of Chicago; there even my public school was Jewish.
I am Jewish because my grandfather was oh, so Jewish, and I felt it then and feel it now.
I am Jewish because angry Irish boys felt my Jewish nose at the end of their Catholic fist.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to remember when we were slaves in Egypt and I do.
I am Jewish because dissent is my faith and my chosen fate.
I am Jewish because in my grandmother's kitchen nothing would rise, but of everything there was plenty.
I am Jewish because the South Shore Country Club was founded by people who would not let us in.
I am Jewish because my Dad once slugged a guy at Comiskey Park who cussed a Jewish pitcher for the White Sox.
I am Jewish because the Jewish god is not diminished by my disbelief.
I am Jewish because Emma Goldman was Jewish, and so was Karl Marx and so was Groucho Marx and Jesus, too, for that matter.
I am Jewish because of the Maccabees and Masada and crusader violence and Spanish inquisitors and Cossack pogroms and the ghetto and the death camps and because I also planted trees in Israel.
I am Jewish because Jewish workers fight in labor struggles and because Jewish people resist racism and because, like all the world’s poor, poor Jews endure.
I am Jewish because being Jewish means never using violence against another except when life, itself, is directly threatened, and that principle must never be compromised.

With these declarations I begin a path to other truths:
I am Palestinian because we are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because I, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because I have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers, I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother, and will return to her.

If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart.

November 13, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Gay Liberation in DC

City Council v. Catholic Archdiocese

The DC City Council is moving toward legal recognition of same-sex marriages that are officially recognized in other jurisdictions. Many observers believe that if the council passes such an ordinance, the next step will be authorization of same-sex marriages performed here in the district.

Such actions are political dynamite when they occur elsewhere. In DC they are that and more. The district is the only place in the country where Congress can intervene directly in what would otherwise be a local governance question. And the symbolic importance of the nation’s capitol recognizing same-sex marriage in any form raises the political temperature further. Adding the DC area’s socially conservative black churches to the mix challenges the council further. But to date, the majority on the council has been more than clear. They have been courageous.

Christian right legal foundations and political groups have been very active in opposing the council initiative. Local black churches, some from suburban areas, have been the spearhead of the opposition, primarily because it would be unseemly for outside organizations to lead the way, but these groups have provided the local opposition with funding support, legal advice and tactical guidance. Lately the opposition has taken the form of petitioning the council to put the matter, if it passes, on the ballot for a public referendum. But the council has been clear: Human rights issues ought not and should not be subject to a popular vote. The logic of civil rights, the council majority says, mandates that all individuals should be treated equally and are entitled to the same social benefits, regardless of the opinion of the majority. Therefore, says the council, there will be no referendum.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington also has had something to say on the matter. It has opposed legal recognition of same-sex marriages legalized elsewhere and has supported the call for a referendum. Most recently, the archdiocese has said that if the measure passes, Catholic Social Services will have to stop providing services to low-income residents of the district. But more surprising, the Washington Post published an editorial stating its alarm over the prospect of Catholic Social Services pulling out of DC and calling on the council to reconsider its proposed ordinance and to modify it in order to accommodate the archdiocese.

But on the 19th, to the Post’s credit, it ran a letter from Rick Rosendall, vice president for political affairs at the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. Rosendall makes it clear that this is not a question of the church’s ability to sustain an appropriate theological line in the face of government stepping over some church-state dividing line.

“The archdiocese does not pretend that providing benefits to divorced and remarried employees violates its teachings. This is not about forcing religious entities to violate their doctrines but about an organization throwing its weight around out of a sense of an entitlement to discriminate. District legislators cannot be expected to submit to blackmail, nor should the Post be making ill-supported excuses for it’” Rosendall wrote.

As all this unfolds, and the likely prospect of a majority of councilmembers actually standing on principle develops, I can’t help thinking of Richard Cleaver, a gay man, who was also Catholic—Richard and I worked together at the American Friends Service Committee in Michigan for much of the ‘80s. He is the author of Know My Name, A Gay Liberation Theology. He is also one of the people encountered in my lifetime who has taught me much about both radical political perspective and human decency.

In the preface to Know My Name, Richard explains how he came to be a Catholic, (which he more than once described in acknowledging the church’s evident homophobia as the largest, organized hate group in the world): “ I knew myself as a gay man before I knew myself as a Christian. This priority of commitment remains at the heart of my life as a member of the body of Christ. I joined the church not in spite of my gayness, but because of it. The church, when it is most fully church, is a community where the word of liberation is spoken and acted out in terms of the wholeness of body and spirit…”

I confess that I do not have any personal experience of what Richard is talking about. But because I have known Richard and have direct experience of the earnestness and diligence with which he sought and seeks the truth, I have no doubt that the church, at its best, is the community of which Richard speaks, and that he struggles for the soul of the church with great faith and love. Because I believe this, I can’t help but turn to Richard for some understanding of how a Catholic ought to act when big questions arise.

Richard’s book is a lengthy exploration of the ways in which gayness and solidarity with all excluded peoples is a fundamental expression of Christ’s message. There’s no possibility of quoting a passage, however long, which can fully illuminate his argument. But because Richard’s guidance has led me here, it has always seemed to me that a church, fully rooted in liberation theology—whether it be Latin American, feminist or gay—would be the true Christian church.

“There is a problem of method we must deal with before we can fully reclaim [the God of erotic love and the God of universal love]. I have alluded to it. Not only have men dominated theology, not only have straight people (at least, people we would now call straight) dominated it, so, too, people vowed to celibacy have dominated it, at least in the Roman, Eastern, and, to a certain extent, Anglican traditions. Working from their own lives, as is proper, but claiming to represent universal principles, they planted in our theological thinking a habit of treating sexual affection as part of our ‘fallenness.’ It is long past time to question this premise. Not only gay men but the whole church will benefit.

“I say this because we must keep in mind that a gay male liberation theology is not just for us. It is a gift to the whole church. Sheila Rowbotham’s reminder that ‘we are going to have to take them with us’ is not just for self-protection. It is inseparable from the outward spiral I describe in this book. It is solidarity.” Pg. 140.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Do Ideas Come From?

The surface is a lonely place.
There’s no air,
no water, nothing erodes.
The rocks are sharp.

The interior’s hot. Wet.
Air’s too thick.
Water drips, pools.
Swamps abound.

Shades and silhouettes,
weightless, multiply.
The lonely places are not private places.
Nothing’s fully realized in the hot interior.

But when the striving stops,
the clamor, the cleaving,
the thunderous dividing stops,
then the lake breeze blows,

babies cry delight,
communities spring up to dance,
and great ideas come from
all their hiding places.


A voyager’s soul,
an incomparable gift.
Wrapped in layers of longing,

trembling with these powers,
the dream beckons.
Come on, then.

This wondrous possibility
of no return stirs the heart,
dog whistle to the brave.

Deficits attend the first step,
fears plague the interim,
defeat closes the journey,
but, man, what a ride.

Poetry Comes Next

Publish Before Perish

Having imagined myself a writer for most of my adult lifetime, I feel compelled to admit that my catalogue of published pieces is pitifully small. I've no particular interest in beating myself up here--in fact I am reasonably pleased with my writing over the last couple of years--but the truth of the matter is that I've never reached a very large audience and I haven't tried hard enough to do so. I don't have a comprehensive solution for that, either, but I have decided to collect some of my poetry and publish it in a single volume that I will market myself. Obviously, it will be a vanity effort, but it will still be a book by Jeff Epton and will have a chance of falling into the hands of others who may then discover something of value to them personally. And, though I've no immediate plans to shuffle off this mortal coil, it will happen before I am too old or too feeble or too dead to complete the project.

I've started focused work on the effort, selecting 30 decent poems that together seem a cohesive and coherent reflection of my capabilities, good, bad or indifferent. Though some of the poems have been finished for some time, I find myself revising many of them and enjoying the process. In revising, I'm trying to accomplish at least three things: One, make the poems more accessible to readers, even people who do not consider themselves audience for poetry. Two, sharpen the point of each poem, especially eliminating complexity that doesn't serve the look, sound or meaning of each poem. And three, simply use fewer words; the biggest advantage poetry has over other forms of writing lies in compression. Vivid images and powerful phrases can be compact on paper and still explode in a reader's mind or imagination. I am trying to achieve such an effect.

In the meantime, I'm going to be posting some of the revised poems that will be part of the book here on this blog. I would dearly love to get feedback from readers, but I will be proceeding with the project regardless. I would also be happy to mail hard copies of the collected poems for the project to anyone who asks. Just e-mail your address to me at jeffepton07@comcast.netand I will send you a packet of poems.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Economic Justice and Military Spending Cannot Coexist

The Fight We Must Win

Our next door neighbor's adult son has moved in with her. Two years ago, just before it was clear that the economic poop had well and truly hit the fan, he had moved out to a place of his own. Now, having lost his job, he's back. They're being careful with each other right now, as opposed to two years ago when we would hear them arguing almost nightly and it was clear that he had to move on and that they were out of patience with their shared living arrangements. I presume that it is only a matter of time before they begin finding the same old faults with each other.

Another friend has been having difficulties with his pre-teen son who suffers from a variety of emotional disorders and learning disabilities. He lives in a state that has never fully funded the service his son requires, but in the last year those services have been rationed more thoroughly than before and he finds that his family cannot get all the help that his son needs. He is considering moving to another state, but which one is flush with cash and fully funding the array of mental health, educational and social services he is seeking?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 26 states that had plugged deficits at the beginning of this fiscal year, have discovered that they haven't plugged enough. New gaps have opened up and new cuts must be made before the end of this fiscal year. Almost all those states and at least a dozen must make further budget cuts in the next fiscal year, as well. (See CBPP's report here).

Given that federal stimulus spending helped many states fill recent deficits, and that there is no new stimulus spending on the horizon, it seems pretty obvious that state spending for health care, education, highways, public transportation, housing and emergency services for the poor and the unemployed will drop, even as the demands increase.

The $787 billion stimulus package passed in February has saved or created 640,000 jobs, CNN reported in October. But the economy has lost 7.3 million jobs since December 2007 (read the report here). With $1 trillion+ federal budget deficits, steady right-wing criticism of the first stimulus (second, countin the even more feeble Bush stimulus package), and uncertainty over the cost of health care reform, it will take a great deal of political courage for Congress and the President to propose and pursue further stimulus spending large enough to help.

But there's the rub. At this point in time, in a country with significant unmet social needs that is also fighting two (long) wars, any effective political leadership will have to be courageous. So, assuming the existence of such a quality, I once again offer military spending as the pot of silver (if not gold) to be placed on the table and redistributed according to the real needs of Americans, rather than the needs of empire.

As frequently happens, I cite the ever reliable Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) for some of the facts that best support an argument for cutting military spending. "... the standard economic models that project job loss from efforts to stem global warming also project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to 2 million jobs in the long run," Baker wrote in a recent column that appeared on-line at

The calculations Baker references are based on projections covering a 20-year period, so the actual current job losses from the military spending increases since 2000 are certainly lower, in the area, say, of half to three-quarters of a million jobs. But if the US had been saving those jobs over the last seven years, rather than bleeding them away, it would have had the impact of another stimulus bill; and likely a timelier and more effective one.

Unfortunately, President Obama has recently signed a defense spending bill that increases the military budget by about five percent. Though it is the accumulating, down-the-road impact of such spending increases that do the most harm, even a one percent decrease annually in the next three military budgets would have a small, positive and growing impact by 2012 and beyond, providing new stimulus to the domestic economy in the amount of, perhaps, $90 billion (the estimated total of annual one percent cuts, plus three to five percent in avoided annual increases). But the longer-term political impact of such cuts matters more than the immediate social benefits.

Winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will involve serious political fights. Resistance will come from members of Congress with large military bases and large numbers of workers in military production living in their districts. Weapons manufacturers and military contractors already spend huge and corrupting amounts of cash on lobbying and political contributions. But as the costs of empire and war erode our domestic economy and our manufacturing base, there is nothing to be gained by avoiding political fights about the direction of spending and everything to win.

The federal budget picks winners and losers and has been picking the military-industrial complex and corporate interests to win since the 1950s. Beginning the fight to pick new winners now--American workers, the domestic economy, social justice, et al.--is a surer way to reelect Obama and progressive Democrats in 2010 and 2012. Small gains now in cutting military spending will set the stage for bigger fights, larger cuts and, ultimately, peace dividends and economic justice in the years beyond 2012.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Obama's Nobel

The World Is Persuaded

Juan Lopez, the chair of the Communist Party in California wrote a nice piece about Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize in the Oct. 17 issue of People's World. In "Obama's peace prize is a wise and timely decision," Lopez says that the rest of the world perceives Obama as having already accomplished a great deal that goes well beyond the rhetorical.

"To be sure," Lopez writes, "[Obama's actions] understood in the context of the last 30 years and the dangers humanity faces in the near future ... represent a qualitative break with the past..." Several of Obama's initiatives, regarded as "just talk" by critics are perceived by much of the rest of the world as different from all U.S. foreign policy since Reagan and already fruitful. These include "... steps to stem proliferation of nuclear weapons leading to their eventual elimination; a commitment to policies to protect the environment and develop sustainable energy resources; diffusing hotbeds of international conflict more often than not provoked by the previous administration[s]; sitting down for talks with leaders of Iran and other nations previously listed as 'terrorist'; serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution; pledging to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and relaxing travel to the island nation."

Though Lopez is positive about Obama's accomplishments to date, he remains a critical observer who expects more, including a wish that the U.S. pull out of the war in Afghanistan. I would add, as well, that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not enough, though it might serve as a transition to a just solution, which must include the end of the Jewish theocratic state in Israel and the establishment of a truly democratic state that fully enfranchises Palestinians.

There are a whole host of progressive domestic policies that Obama should be pursuing, also, but Lopez is clear that the political climate makes many changes difficult to achieve. Maintaining "the left-center core of the multiclass coalition that elected Obama" is absolutely essential, he argues.

"Our strategic goal must be to consolidate the November 2008 victory against the far right in the 2010 and 2012 election cycle ... if the extreme right manages to significantly get its footing back in any significant way during the next election cycles, it will rebound on the nation and the world with a vengeance."

I agree. The bizarre coalition of corporate and fundamentalist religious interests that elected Bush and Cheney is still viable. Obama is not a progressive, but he is a thoughtful and well-intentioned moderate. He can be pushed to the left, but not if progressives who want more stand aside while the Republican right pursues its own restoration.

In Re: Joe Lieberman

To Kill the Ghoul, You Kill the Brain

I've never liked Joe Lieberman much and I was thrilled when he lost in the Connecticut Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate in 2006. After all, he was one of the principal Democratic enablers of the invasion of Iraq. He's also a leading Senate comforter of Israel and an obvious friend of Likud. His selection as Al Gore's running mate in 2000 was one of the reasons why many progressives were reluctant supporters of the Democratic ticket that year. And though Gore and Lieberman won the popular vote over Bush and Cheney, Lieberman is very likely one of those who counseled Gore against challenging the Florida vote count.

There's plenty of other things to get down on Lieberman about. Here's another example.

It follows that Lieberman's surprise victory as an independent candidate in the Connecticut general election for Senate over Ned Lamont (the Democrat who beat him in the primary) was a major disappointment (for me, at least). In 2008, Lieberman compounded his offenses by appearing at the Republican convention to nominate John McCain. One might then have expected Democratic leaders in the Senate to deny him a variety of privileges that go to party loyalists; he was even allowed to continue as chair of a Senate committee. This magnanimity was connected to the perceived need for Democrats to reach a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.

Now comes Lieberman to say (in today's Washington Post-"Centrists unsure about Reid's public option") "he remains opposed to a government-run insurance plan in any form." The Post article goes on to say that "unless the public option language is dropped [Lieberman] probably will align with Republicans to block the measure."

Quelle surprise! It puts me in mind of "The Night of the Living Dead," in which the zombies appear to be virtually indestuctible until it is discovered that one must "kill the brain to kill the ghoul." Joe Lieberman is not a zombie, of course, but I'm just sayin' he has this weird way of coming back from defeat and plaguing the dreams of progressives.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

US Out of Afghanistan

Still no good war

So now we are treated to the spectacle of a decent human being, caught up in a set of ideological and culture blinders, agonizing over whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Personally, I've never been a completely convinced pacifist, but the evidence continues to accumulate, as I age, that no war is a good war.

There are probably a million mildly persuasive to absolutely convincing reasons why Barack Obama should decide to pull the US military out of Afghanistan ASAP--not that I think that is the decision Obama is going to make--but one of my favorites is that we can't afford this war. In fact, it ought to be pretty clear by now that we plainly can't afford war, period.

After all, maintaining readiness for war already costs the country more than $1 trillion each year; that's the rough cost of a peacetime military budget + all sorts of military-related expenditures buried in other departmental budgets, like the department of energy+the interest on that part of the national debt that has been incurred in preparing for and fighting wars+spending that never makes the budget, at all, including "black" book operations, like spying and aggressive subversions of interests deemed hostile to the US. That $1 trillion also does not include the last 8 years of spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, a total nearing another $1 trillion. It also does not include probably another $2 trillion in veterans' benefits, which will be expended in the future, much of that for health problems, including PTSD, afflicting vets because of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. (To see a source for these figures go here.)

Such dollar totals are universal healthcare dollars, California bail-out dollars, urban mass transit dollars, and rebuild and revitalize public education dollars. Healthcare, healthy state budgets, mass transit, good public education, these are the things that secure a nation's future, that increase the security of a people, but we don't have them and can't pay for them because we are always at war or preparing for war, or both.

There are other, perhaps more serious considerations, like the murder of innocents and the killing of soldiers--Iraqi, Aghani and American--that should overwhelm any interest in continuing, or escalating, the war in Afghanistan. Marc Weisbrot (co-director, with Dean Baker,of the Center for Economic and Policy Research) has recently distributed a column arguing that the US war effort in Afghanistan has already failed (find Occupying Afghanistan Is Making Things Worse here). The column suggests that as many as one million Iraqis have died since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. The corresponding number for Afghani casualties is much lower, but the Afghani population is also smaller and Afghani casualties will rise as the war escalates.

Citing a variety of sources, Marc also observes that the turnout in the Afghan election five years ago was almost twice the turnout in this year's election. In any case, he says, al-Qaeda isn't even significantly present in Afghanistan anymore, the group's core has moved to Pakistan.

The one possible argument against ending the war in Afghanistan is what happens to the lives of Afghani women, if the Taliban, with their misogyny and fundamentalism, return to power. Still, there are other ways to helpfully address women's issues globally and the United States is not exploring many of those alternatives. And the devastation of the current war is falling equally on women, in any case.

Moral arguments never seem very effective, but we should make them anyway, as Weisbrot does in his piece:

"There is also a moral dimension here that is overlooked by the pundits. It is wrong to kill people, including civilians, and bring mayhem and destruction to other countries simply to "save face" or fend off political attacks from right-wing politicians. Thank God there are millions of Americans who understand this much better than their elected, appointed, and self-appointed leaders. If they keep up the heat, this war will end."

I don't know if I believe that last part about the war ending. But I'm happy to go along, if it will help.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Pro-War, Anti-Environment, Israel as Spearhead Matrix

Christian Fundamentalists & Big Oil

If Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy, is to be believed, the West has been prosecuting an oil war against the Middle East since World War I. “…the hundred year duration is clear enough, the subject matter was indeed oil, and English speakers…were invariably among the arms bearers,” says Phillips, as he demolishes the succession of Anglo-American public relations arguments for action that preceded each outbreak of hot war in the area.

Phillips says the two most recent US-Iraq wars
“were lubricated by deceits—in the first instance the Iraqi armored threat to Saudi Arabia and the fabrication that Iraqi invaders had ripped three hundred premature Kuwaiti babies from hospital incubators; in the second involving the unsustainable charges that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Former CIA desk officer [Stephen] Pelletiere minces few words on this, saying that the behavior of the Americans and British in the run-ups to both wars bore a disturbing similarity to ‘the Big Lie’ used by the Germans in launching World War II.”

Of course, for this argument to be credible, Phillips must make the case that the hunger for control over oil globally has been a dominant feature of US policy for most of the last century. Indeed, he pursues this point with great vigor and effectiveness, beginning with John D. Rockefeller and the establishment of the domestic US oil industry in the 19th century, through the Middle Eastern oil concessions obtained by Gulf, Texaco and Standard Oil of California during the first third of the 20th century, the overthrow of Iran’s nationalist government in 1953 and the installation of the Shah of Iran as the head of a regime subservient to US interests, the development of a comprehensive global strategy outlined by Henry Kissinger and others, and ending with the presidencies of Bush I and Bush II, the scions of a four-generation oil family.

I remember, with some chagrin, arguing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not about oil. It was, I believed at the time, both a residual effect of the Cold War against the old Soviet Union, and the natural logic of a militarized US economy that would inevitably launch large-scale attacks and fire off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missiles simply to maintain economic momentum and employment (notwithstanding the existence of plenty of studies showing the long-term negative impact of military spending on both economic growth and employment).

In making that argument, I seemed to be suffering from a bad case of not seeing the forest while cleverly focusing on a few quite obvious trees. The simple truth is that the Cold War was very much about the development of the Soviet Union as a superpower rival for control of resources, and the profit enjoyed by the military-industrial complex fit nicely into a larger goal of using force or the threat of force to ensure US access to Third World resources, oil, in particular.

In fact, a 1991 report from the Worldwatch Institute asserts that the US military is the country’s single largest oil consumer. And in 2007, Michael Klare (at this website) estimated that Pentagon operations consumed upwards of 14 million gallons of oil each day. Obviously, this creates a lot of momentum for a warmaking machine to fight wars over oil.

Phillips’ book also carefully explores the way Christian fundamentalists and oil interests built the electoral coalition that dominated US politics over the last 25 years. He is particularly persuasive in tracing the way electoral college results that made presidents out of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes overlap significantly with concentrations of fundamentalist voters in the country’s largest oil-producing states, which are also home to the corporate headquarters of the once-dominant, and still influential, oil companies.

Out of all of this, grow three issues of major concern to me:

1. Though the unholy alliance of Christian fundamentalism and oil has suffered severe setbacks, it remains the most powerful promoter of military intervention by the United States.
2. In his 2005 book, Phillips observed that “the evidence that natural resources issues are taking on theological as well as political overtones is mounting…close to a majority of those who voted for Bush believe the bible to be literally true.” Here again, the unholy alliance remains the single strongest voice deriding the science behind climate change activism. Republicans in Congress remain the single most significant obstacle to effective action to address climate change.
3. Israel, I believe, was founded with the approval of the US and other world powers who saw the Jewish state as an outpost in the struggle for control over oil resources. The existence of Israel as a Jewish theocratic state is one of the most important provocateurs of Islamic terrorism, but the unholy alliance is indifferent to that consequence because the country maintains its utility as an outpost and because Christian end-timers believe that conflict in the Middle East is compatible with the approach of apocalypse and the rapture.

I will examine all three of these issues in subsequent posts.

I Don't See No Stinkin' Climate Change

Post op-ed writers knee-deep
in rising waters

What can I say? Writing to the Washington Post just makes my day, even if they don't return the love. This is letter to the Post #25.

Two recent columns on the cost of reversing global climate change suffer from the same weakness—an unwillingness to consider the complete picture that leads the writers, Bjorn Lomborg (“Costly Carbon Cuts,” Sept. 28) and George Will (“Cooling Down the Casandras, Oct. 1”), to rather polemical denunciations of the costs of addressing climate change while ignoring the full range of anticipated consequences. (Also, see Dean Baker's comments on Lomborg's column here.)

Will’s column, in fact, makes simple fun of the climate change threat, noting that the average annual change in global temperatures is not relentlessly upwards. But Will, who has consistently denied that climate change is upon us, does not cite any scientific evidence that the threat is not real in the short- or long-term. Instead, he resorts to ridicule. Though Will is an amusing writer, he has long since disqualified himself as a reasonable contributor to a discussion of climate change and what to do about it.

Lomborg, whom Will has actually cited in the past, does not challenge basic assumptions about climate change, but claims that the cost of addressing it will far exceed the benefits. To come to this conclusion, Lomborg cites a high-end estimate of the cost of reducing greenhouse gasses ($46 trillion) and a low-end estimate ($1.1 trillion) of the benefits from avoiding the “expected climate damage.”

Of course, the economic model Lomborg relies on places no valuation on human life, biodiversity or other nonquantifiable damage. But the economic damage to, say, Bangladesh, where rising seas will wipe out 80% of the country’s GDP [and cause enormous social dislocation], will have little impact on the global economy. Lomborg and economists who rely on such calculations are clearly unconcerned that Bangladeshis will suffer grievously from a problem they have not created. The rest of us ought not be so sanguine about the effects there or anywhere else.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Wild Once and Captured (revised)

On Hearing Annie Lennox

A prairie full of flowers,
a whisper full of rhythms,
a mirror full of faces,
a mountain cloaked in ragged glow,
every one a rarity
designed in mystic fever.

Here music summons silence,
here longing is allure
and touching is an art
and dancing is a language
and searching leads us one by one
to stories all our own,
and to stories told in common.

Here smolders spirit
rich and ripe
with promise, peace and legend.
There drums yammering in clearings
where we are jamming with justice
who was wild once and captured
and has broken out again.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

No War Is Good Policy

Iraq and Afghanistan:
Deja Vu All Over Again

Here's Letter to the Post, #24
(It didn't get published, either. Too long, perhaps.):

General Stanley McChrystal’s report on the Afghanistan war might have been leaked a day or two early by someone who wants President Obama to escalate the war, but worrying about who did so, or why, diverts attention from more important considerations.

Perhaps the pivotal statement in McChrystal’s report reads, “Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate."

McChrystal also warned against preoccupation “with protection of our own forces” in Afghanistan (“Less Peril for Civilians, but More for Troops,” Post, Sept. 23). These two points, combined with what we already know—that the cost of our current wars is unsustainable, that the war in Iraq was instigated under false pretenses, and that the US’s ability to retaliate in force was understood and discounted by Osama bin Laden long before 9-11—should lead us to some fresh conclusions about war policy:

1. We are engaged in wars that al-Qaeda and the Taliban do not mind fighting and, ultimately, reinforce their recruiting and anti-American messages.
2. Serious US losses at any point provoke calls to escalate wars with unachievable goals at further (unaffordable) expense.
3. No other reasonable foreign policy goals are enhanced, especially progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by continuing the war in Afghanistan.

It should be equally clear that the next one trillion dollars we spend on warmaking is the very same one trillion we need to resolve our current health care gridlock. Forty years ago, we proved that we could not simultaneously wage unjust war and build the Great Society. That lesson is even more universally applicable today. Spending for war is incompatible with building a just world in which a greater portion of humanity can share. If we wish to honor the past sacrifices of soldiers and civilians, American or otherwise, we will invest in peace.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Health Care Workers Wig Out

Some, not all.

I'm reading Kevin Phillip's American Theocracy. Phillips (here's his Wikipedia entry) is a graybeard among right-wingers with a lot of campaign experience and time spent in Republican presidential administrations. He's also notorious among older lefties (he made my own personal enemies list a long time ago), but he's also an impressive thinker and generally behaves with real modesty and gentility.

Anyway, reading his books is an easy way to learn stuff and gain new perspective. I'm not very far into American Theocracy. but Phillip's framing of the Republican party of the last 20 years as the first religious party in US history is quite persuasive. And his grasp of the detailed way in which Christian fundamentalism has reshaped American political culture is very helpful.

So when I read this morning on the front page of The Washington Post that "Mandatory Flu Shots Hit Resistance" among health care workers, I'm thinking Phillips is right and, of course, the lunacy continues to spread.

One health care worker is quoted saying that she (he?) doesn't want to "be forced to take something [she doesn't] want to take." Apparently, she doesn't want to be a "guinea pig" for the swine flu vaccine. Another critic says we're on a slippery slope here; first it's vaccinations for health care workers, pretty soon it's going to be estrogen shots for everybody and we're all going to be hooked up to milking machines, I guess. And then there's always the my-body-is-my-temple line, which would be the beginning of a decent argument if it weren't for the fact that most temples are only averagely clean and probably harboring a surprising number of infectious things.

Even an SEIU spokesperson is sounding the alarm. "These mandatory vaccination programs are really sucking the air out of the room to deal with infection control in a more comprehensive manner," said Bill Borwegen, occupational health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union. "This is the worst time to be demoralizing health-care workers: when we need them to be on the front line of this epidemic."

But there is neither scientific evidence nor political theory of any sort that supports any of those arguments against mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. In the mini-series John Adams, Abigail Adams and a handful of little Adamses get vaccinated against smallpox. Pater John is in France seeking additional French assistance for the American Revolution and Abigail reasons that with only herself available to work the farm and care for her children a case of smallpox in the family could devastate their lives. So she decides to get everybody vaccinated, even after her doctor tells her that there is a decent chance that though the vaccinations would likely protect them, there is a small chance the vaccinations could also cause the illness.

The decision made, the doctor shows up at the farm hauling a nearly dead guy with open smallpox sores who seems too out of it to have actually agreed to be involved. In a fairly nauseating sequence, the doctor cuts open one of the man's fresher sores and scoops up the puss, then one by one, makes an incision in various Adams family arms and spoons in a little bit of the goo. One child gets a mild case, but recovers, and the family holds things together on the homefront. That was more than 225 years ago.

Given that turn of events, I'm tempted to argue (with equal illogic) with those who think that giving in to mandatory vaccinations is a step on the slippery slope that leads us to eroding freedoms and milk machines that John Adams was a key figure in the success of the American Revolution, that the health of the Adams family (the John Adams family) was a necessary component of Adams' effectiveness, that vaccinations helped preserve the Adams family, and that vaccinations are therefore a foundational part of our freedoms. But I would have to be even dumber than I sometimes look to make that argument with a straight face.

Still, given how long vaccination has been a proven medical approach to treating some diseases, it shows a severe deficit in what should be common medical knowledge for a contemporary health care worker to imagine themselves as a guinea pig in a vaccination experiment. And given that exposed, unvaccinated people get flus far more often than vaccinated people, it follows that health care workers are far more likely than the rest of us to contract the swine flu. Further, the primary collective responsibility of the 12 million health care workers in the US is providing health care to the other 310 million of us, so it makes sense that you wouldn't want them to get sick at a faster rate than the rest of us do. After all, "we need them to be on the front line of this epidemic." Therefore, we protect them first and best--we vaccinate them all. Duh.

Let me add here that I'd have less problem with a person saying, "I'm not getting vaccinated because I believe this whole swine flu-thing is a media hallucination," but nobody's saying that. In any case, every national health service in the developed world is calling for vaccination. That's pretty much equal to the absolute scientific certainty that we all evolved from apes and took a million years to learn to wipe our butts.

So what's American Theocracy got to do with this? Lots, but since I haven't actually thought this post all the way through, I'm just going to cite one of Phillip's very relevant and important observations:

"...the substantial portion of Christian America committed to theories of Armageddon and the inerrancy of the Bible has already made the GOP into America's first religious party.

"Its religiosity reaches across the board--from domestic policy to foreign affairs. Besides providing critical support for invading Iraq, widely anathematized by preachers as a second Babylon, the Republican coalition's clash with science has seeded half a dozen controversies. These include Bible-based disbelief in Darwinian theories of evolution, dismissal of global warming, disagreement with geological explanations of fossil-fuel depletion, religious rejection of global population planning, derogation of woman's rights, opposition to stem-cell research, and so on."

Phillips' deeper point, I think, would also note that not all of these examples of the Republican clash with science are manifested in religious terms. They are simply the outcome of a continuing argument against scientifically proven ideas that is older than the Catholic church's persecution of Gallileo for asserting that the sun was the center of the solar system.

Well, now you can add health care workers rejecting vaccination to the list of stupid fundamentalist arguments with real science; arguments that gain credibility because the culture has already been dumbed down. The notion that you can't vaccinate people and also remind them to wash their hands frequently might work if the people in question were infants, but we are talking adults here. Adults we are clearly going to have to contend with, even at the risk of losing IQ points.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who Is In Charge of US Israel Policy?

Letter to the Washington Post

By my count, I've written 24 letters to the Post, one has been published so far. This is letter #23:

I know people who believe that US foreign policy is substantially determined by Zionists. I don’t share their opinion and frequently argue that it is counter-productive to focus on a Zionist “cabal” as the driver of American policy.

But two articles in Saturday’s Post provide substantial basis for argument that our Middle East policy is in the hands of people who are exceedingly deferential to Israeli wishes. “Israel Finds Strength in Its Missile Defenses” outlines the way advanced US military technologies are made available to Israel. In addition, the two countries conduct joint military exercises focused largely on Israeli needs and US readiness to “...stand behind Israel if it came under attack.”

All of this aid is only a small portion of the billions of dollars Israel (the number one US foreign aid recipient) receives annually in the form of grants and loan guarantees. It also occurs in the context of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and the relentless Israeli annexation, in the form of settlements, of Palestinian land. As “Envoy’s Mideast Trip Ends Without Accord” reports, George Mitchell’s recent diplomatic visit ended “…without reaching an agreement with Israel over limits on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.”

The spectacle of the world’s sole superpower giving Israel billions of dollars a year while begging fruitlessly that Israel end its occupation of Palestine, end its annexations, and end its violations of international law, inevitably raises questions about who is in charge of US foreign policy. It should come as no surprise that the easy answer for some is “Zionists.”

Jeff Epton

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


It’s all in the history—
reason, the humid soul,
the dreaming and the haunting truth.
There is also wisdom
gone away, gone awry, gone with god.
And kindness, the eternal insufficiency.

With these things,
the world begins,
aspiring to completeness.
And we begin
yearning pursuit, our dramatic reach
seasoned by the classic,

the poke in the eye,
the stuttering tongue,
the stumble forward,
the puddling pratfall,
the heave and the hernia,
the ironic distance from self.

We flood by in our numbers,
living by codes of conduct, codes of honor,
codes of righteousness and faith,
leavened by repetitions,
by generations fresh from the old errors,
our moments of stunning forgiveness,

our exquisite caresses.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy in Capitalist Democracyland

Oh, the irony

I spoke to a (the?) reader of yesterday's blog on Ted Kennedy, President Obama and the fate of progressive change. She, the reader, said the post would have been easier to read if I'd been less present in the piece. Her point, I inferred, was that there were too many points in the piece and the further allusions to my current struggles to write diminished the authority with which I spoke about politics and policy.

Ah, well and yes. There were too many points.

First, there was this: if Kennedy had been healthy and functioning in the Senate since Obama's election, we would have passed health care legislation and labor law reform. If that were actually the case, the Republican opposition would still be struggling to regroup and progressives would still feel part of a viable political coalition capable of tackling other, even tougher, challenges, like orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan and the occupation of Palestine by a theocratic Israeli state. Of course, if pigs could fly, we would all keep one at home and use them for quick trips to the grocery store.

Second, there was implicitly this: The idea that a single individual could make so much difference undermines the basic theory of complex, modern democracy. This should not come as a surprise. Ever since humans gathered in tribes, charismatic leaders have made enormous differences, even making a pivotal difference in the survival of cultures and civilizations. Designing a democracy so that it creates as much basic political equality as possible and accommodates the full range of who humans are individually and in groups is a thoroughly incomplete project. Obviously, the attempt has been made before. We ought to try it again.

In my lifetime, Americans have elected 11 presidents--Truman, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama. Gerald Ford was the one unelected president during the period, but in 1974 the U.S. didn't feel particularly less democratic, though Ford did make use of his powers to pardon the paranoid and politically corrupt former president, Richard Nixon. And, as Nixon's own story exemplifies, powerful leaders, of democracies or otherwise, sometimes make profoundly undemocratic choices.

The impact of those choices are also multiplied when the leaders are very charismatic figures, too, as Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan were. The terrible state of U.S. relations with Cuba originated with JFK's Machiavellian encounters with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Though Kennedy was only briefly a president (1,000 days, or so), he managed to set the foundation for 50 years or reactionary policy toward Cuba. Kennedy also opened the door to Johnson, the war in Vietnam and the Great Society, a dubious legacy.

Johnson's war in Vietnam eventually became Nixon's war with its destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it (from the Communists) approach, as well as saturation bombings and the secret war in Cambodia. Johnson's most liberal achievement was the attempt to modernize the New Deal and build the Great Society, but his list of very progressive reforms could not survive both an unwillingness to tax in order to pay for war and social programs and his inclination to threaten Congressional Democrats hesitant to support his agenda.

It would be ahistorical to outright assert that Ronald Reagan was elected president primarily because of the frequently undemocratic failings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, if only because Reagan himself was the first president to be a celebrity before he was a politician (or a general), was also a supremely charismatic figure campaigning against the uncharismatic Jimmy Carter, and was the beneficiary of a sustained Iran hostage crisis that Carter was unable to resolve.

Reagan pursued arguably the most undemocratic foreign policies during my lifetime. Magically, the Iran hostage crisis, seemingly so untractable during Carter's presidency, was resolved. The Reagan administration supported Latin American military dictatorships with enthusiasm and initiated (despite fervent Congressional and public opposition) a proxy war against Nicaragua's Marxist leadership. The Reagan team also supported Iran in a long, damaging war against Iraq and sold arms to Iran as a way to funnel support to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries and evade a Congressional ban against using U.S. funds for that purpose.

Given these brief histories of charismatic leaders subverting democracy, what could possibly be the rap against Ted Kennedy?

Though we have not gotten to the "irony of it all," nor to "Ted Kennedy in Capitalist Land, we must needs bring today's post to a conclusion, if only to avoid a possible fate as tomorrow's post. Therefore mañana.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kennedy, Obama ...

... and a little more about me

Blogging has been, in bursts and dormancy, a bit of a metaphor for my life. At the best of times, it feels like a gift, an inspiration, a duty, an engagement. But it has also slipped away, eeled out of my grasp, a task quite beyond me. Lately, it has been more the second than the first. I wonder at how unable I have been to make myself do it.

About three weeks ago (two weeks, maybe), I had a plan to write about Ted Kennedy and how his illness had changed political and policy outcomes. I'd spoken to a lobbyist I know who had been quite clear that if Kennedy had not been dying--had been present and functioning in the Senate--we would already have passed a health care bill, and passed a watered-down version of the Employee Free Choice Act, too. She was emphatic.

I was somewhat surprised to hear her say it, and even more surprised to note that I had seen stuff written about Kennedy and his legacy, but not a peep about how dramatically his absence had affected Congress and the country. The director of a progressive think tank echoed some of what the lobbyist had to say. "I don't know about health care, but I've seen him get things done in the Senate that others couldn't manage." Despite Kennedy's reputation as a liberal, he has generally been more effective working with conservative Republicans than his more moderate colleagues have been, the source observed.

But of all the people who should rue Sen. Kennedy's illness (and, as of today, his death), Barack Obama and David Axelrod must have felt the pain of his absence most, or nearly so. Here's Barack, trotting about, trying to get the country back on his side and in full support of his version of health care reform when, barring a single cancer, he might still be enjoying his earlier-in-the-term popularity and posing with Kennedy at the signing of a health care bill.

Such thoughts incline me, briefly, to a more charitable attitude toward what's happening politically. Obama is in the midst of a difficult communication battle, his spin on health care reform has not been persuasive to a big part of the public, and his political agenda has been stymied, if not also revealed as patchwork and shallow. We have always known, or should have, that Obama is no progressive, but the momentum should have remained with the Democrats longer than it has, and we should have been enjoying the continuing belief that change we could believe in remained ahead.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I thought I should be the first on my block to blog about Kennedy. I could have even thrown in some references to Tom Daschle, who was supposed to be Obama's point person on reform, but who ended up unable to serve formally (and immediately) in that leadership role because of unpaid taxes. Kennedy's death is sad, of course, but his inability to play a role unique to him, and Daschle's unavailability, may have moved us into an alternative political universe in which the fruits of Obama's election victory turn out to be dramatically less progressive than anticipated.

But I didn't write about it--because I've hardly been writing, at all, these last few weeks--and now Sen. Kennedy is dead. The point ought not to be that I am more frustrated by my unproductivity than I am by the loss of an opportunity that almost certainly died with Kennedy, but clearly, I have been on my own mind quite alot recently. Still, I'm actually blogging here, today (the day after my 62nd birthday), and I ought to try and maintain my focus.

So, here's the deal: Kennedy and Daschle aside, the collapse of the economy and the huge loss of asset wealth had already made the political landscape gloomier and less fertile. Kennedy's loss alone should not have doomed health care, but it's easy to imagine that he would have made a huge difference had he been healthy. But it's over now and Obama is in for some hugely difficult politics over the next year to eighteen months. Moderates, except as peace keepers in an incredibly polarized political debate, aren't going to make much difference politically, even if the media and a good portion of the public wish them all the best.

Obama is a moderate, himself, but he's not going to gain any points trying to referee. He needs an agenda to guide him, but the one he had is in a shambles. Neither he nor Congressional Democrats are going to get much support from progressives, either.

They don't have a peace agenda for Afghanistan. They have no clear sympathy for the plight of Palestinians and no effective ways to deal with a pro-Israel lobby that continues to frame the debate about the Middle East. They are badly mishandling Latin America, siding with the engineers of coup in Central America and making friends with the same, old right-wingers.

And if the economy has not turned dramatically positive by spring, the summer of 2010 will be the hottest summer in the inner cities since the 1960s. The moment for change we can believe in seems to be passing us by. Worse, it may already have happened.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rocket Science

It was the different leaves
of a different tree
rustling in the wind
a millennium ago.

Or a millennium ahead, as if
now and then mattered.
I was the first woman
to say no, or not, as if

refusing to be property
set some kind of record.
This is my story of yes,
of laying myself down,

on my cushion of gathered moss.
Of laying myself
between earth and sky,
while a swell of crickets

kissed the breeze around us.
Our hearts fluttered with the rise
of a second swell and soared
with the music of different birds

in the different bushes nearby.
To this man I did say yes,
yes, as his breath feathered my thighs.
Hunting by scent, arriving at the crack

of my dawning,
of his awakening
into a different time
of manhood and glory.

Coming together at a bonfire
of young memory,
the fluid crescendo of
our rocket works,

forgetting she who I alone will deliver
though she will one day launch
poems to the stars,
We sang to each other.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Maya Angelou's Book

Continuums On Which We Live

I'm reading Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I'm certain that I should have read it earlier in life, but at least I'm reading it now. In the book, as James Baldwin said, Angelou "confronts her own life with ... luminous dignity." Baldwin's gracious endorsement seems an appropriate assessment of Angelou's accomplishment and though I haven't finished the book, there's a few thoughts on the way to finishing that I'd like to get down here.

In one particularly vivid portion, Angelou, who seems to have been a generally dour child (with good reason), describes the excitement of her graduation from elementary school in Stampps, Arkansas. After what seems to have been weeks of VIP treatment from Stampps' black residents, Angelou and her classmates suffer through the appearance of a white man as guest speaker whose comments remind everyone in attendance that they are second-class citizens with little hope of controlling the course of their own lives. The joyful optimism and gratitude with which Angelou started the day was dashed by a speaker whose "... dead words fell like bricks around the auditorium." The speech served to remind the audience only that they were "... maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous."

The enormous hatred inspired in Angelou as she sat listening--"I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all the whitefolks in their beds..."--quickly envelops everything and everyone. "We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other."

It is a dark moment, with no apparent hope of resurrected feeling. After the white man, who has no wish to mingle, leaves, it is time for the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, to speak. Angelou sits and listens, marveling that Reed would even bother to give his address, "To Be or Not To Be." She is unmoved. "I had been listening and silently rebutting each sentence with my eyes closed." Suddenly Reed begins singing, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The audience begins singing with him. Soon everyone has joined in.

"Stong the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?"

Angelou describes the moment as the first time she had really heard the words of the song.

"We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered."

It is a transcendent moment for Angelou and everyone else in the crowd. Somehow the song, James Weldon Johnson's poetry has restored them all. "I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940," Angelou writes, "I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race."

"If we were a people much given to revealing secrets," she continues, "we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers)."

It is enough. But Angelou's book has more and I am not done with it. But it has also stimulated this thought for me: Perhaps we don't name the continuums with which we measure ourselves correctly. We are all of us, black and white, rich and poor, ambitious and resigned, complicated people. But we don't really know how to think about ourselves or the people around us with any real subtlety. The challenge ought to be defining some real life standards by which we should be measured. Angelou has me thinking about this one:

At one end of a continuum is a question asked by Angelou's brother Bailey when he was, say, 13 or 14. "Uncle Willie, why do [white men] hate us so much?" At the other end of that continuum is the persistent determination with which Angelou pursued a job as conductor on a San Francisco street car. Getting the job would make Angelou, who at the time was not yet out of high school, "the first Negro [hired] on the San Francisco street cars." She did, indeed, become that person.

"During this period of strain Mother and I began our first steps on the long path toward mutual adult admiration ... She comprehended the perversity of life, that in struggle lies the joy."

So, where do I place myself on that continuum. I am certainly not much like the 13-year-old Bailey who asked his uncle a question that Willie didn't want to answer and probably didn't know how to answer. I have answers to Bailey's question. But how far along that path have I gotten?. How thoroughly have I comprehended that astonishing perversity that Angelou outlines: How much have I struggled and, in the process, how much joy have I wrested from this life?

At the end of her street car chapter Angelou says this:
"To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity."

I like that a lot. If I could, I would try and persuade my children, Nate, Julie and Brendan, that real standards for measuring oneself are subtle. Have you surrendered to the murderous pressure of adult conformity or have you continued the fight against the superior forces of maturity? I don't wish them lives of constant struggle. But I'm pretty sure that no sort of real peace is possible without it. And I'm inclined to believe that if we do not struggle, if we give in, we could become things that we never wished to be. People whose successes bring them no comfort or people who have forgotten about their own dreams and measure themselves by the standards of others or people who don't care about the questions of troubled children.