Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seven Jewish Children

The Mitzvah at Theatre J

Seven Jewish Children was performed last night at Theatre J. Marrianne and I attended the 10-minute performance—a reading really—part of a package of other short readings and a longer discussion about reactions to the play and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A group of people, not organizationally identified, picketed Theatre J, which occupies space in the Q street building owned by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, DC. Describing the play as anti-semitic, the demonstrators opposed its performance in a building supported by donations from the Jewish community.

In a discussion after the play, some theatre-goers expressed discomfort about the demonstrators. “I felt threatened as I walked in,” one woman said.

But in truth, the demonstrators were a pretty peaceful, unassuming lot, whose presence was not in the least bit surprising. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, with origins in the early 20th Century, and particularly in the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel (for competing views about this event see Yom Ha'atzmaut and Nakba Day), has been the center of an increasingly polarized discussion within the Jewish community for many years.

A characterization of that polarized debate, which would be both succinct and accurate, is very nearly impossible. But, in general, the most visible ends of the debate within the Jewish community assert one of two positions:

1. Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. The security and safety of all Jews, Israeli or otherwise, depends on the continued survival of a Jewish state with secure borders, or

2. A Jewish state in Israel will never be secure as long as it refuses to deal justly with a displaced and oppressed Palestinian majority in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

On the continuum between these two positions lie dozens of other points of view and proposed solutions to the conflict. More often than not, the discussion between opposing points of view breaks down, frequently accompanied by frustration, anger, mutual rejection and name-calling.

Those who consider themselves mostly strongly pro-Israel sometimes describe those who express solidarity with displaced Palestinians, or even sympathy for Palestinians, as self-hating Jews. An existing web variation on this is the S.H.I.T. (self-hating, Israel-threatening Jews) List.

On the other hand, some Jewish activists on behalf of Palestinian self-determination describe Israel as an apartheid state and regard zionism as a vestigial form of colonialism. Though I think that zionism is, in theory, simply Jewish nationalism, there is nothing simple about a nationalism that is attached to a homeland where no purely Jewish state has existed for more than 2000 years, if ever.

And though a form of apartheid exists in Israel, I find the description of Israel as an apartheid state unhelpful in most discussions. Still, you could find my name on the S.H.I.T. List, if you bothered to look, and I am an absolute believer that a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must include Palestinian self-determination (however complicated that might be to define and implement).

In that context, I am sure of only a couple of things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we do not solve this problem peacefully, it will end with the near complete extermination of the Palestinian people in their historic homeland and the abandonment of an historic Jewish commitment to seek justice as a matter of faith. Arguably, no action taken by Israel to date has led to a secure homeland for Jews.

For both Jews and Palestinians, there will be either a peaceful resolution to this conflict, or Palestinians and Jews, as we currently understand them, will cease to exist. This is a problem of enormous size, and solving it is not guaranteed. Our best tools in this struggle will be openness, flexibility, persistence and peaceful confrontation with each other and ourselves. Anger, hatred and rage are our most dangerous enemies.

In light of all this, I have written my friend Ari Roth, the director of Theatre J, the open letter below:

Dear Ari,

A few comments on last night’s performance of “Seven Jewish Children.”

First, it was an exciting evening. The play is thought provoking. Theatre J staged it well and the audience/performer discussion afterward was rich, nuanced and only a beginning.

Second, I fear there were so many different elements injected into the evening’s program, the discussion, itself, was too compressed. This is only a mild criticism. After all, in order to identify a tiny bit of common ground on which a substantial portion of the entire Jewish community and friends can agree, we will need many, many more such discussions. The discussion last night was a model for more.

Though some members of the audience felt that playwright Caryl Churchill possesses a disqualifying contempt for Jews, Israelis and historical accuracy, I think that the audience in attendance included exactly the people Churchill hoped to reach.

One case in point: Professor Amitai Etzioni, whose life spans a childhood in Nazi Germany, service with the Palmach during the creation of the state of Israel, and a distinguished academic career in the United States. Etzioni dismissed the first four parts of the play as a “seduction,” the last three as “propaganda.” He rejected the notion that Churchill had anything meaningful to say to him.

But I viewed the play as a desperate and artistic effort by Churchill to speak honestly to Etzioni and other zionists who occupy a point on the discussion continuum far removed from hers. She attempted a kind of stripped down realism, using the entirely plausible comments of parents trying to puzzle out a way to speak to their child about a variety of moments in Jewish history, including pogroms, the establishment of the state of Israel and the invasion of Gaza.

I perceived the structure of the play as part of Churchill’s attempt to move away from fundamental disagreements about “facts.” But those disagreements were precisely the ones cited by Etzioni and others in the audience who accused Churchill of enormous distortions and even an anti-semitic blood libel.

Given the response, it must be acknowledged that in some ways the play fails. Churchill’s target audience did not hear her. They rejected her message. But in the dialogue it provoked, Churchill’s play succeeds. She might have wished for more understanding, but I suspect a more fundamental goal of the play was to be part of the discussion. The play easily accomplishes that goal. And I suspect that Churchill will try again, exactly the response that the problem we are facing requires.

We are, all of us (playwrights, producers, professors and audiences, struggling with a central issue of monumental proportions here. And we will ultimately solve the problem or it will consume us, Palestinians, Israeli Jews and American Jews, and non-Jews everywhere who believe that they cannot stand silent in the presence of a historical injustice.

In closing, let me congratulate you and Theatre J for being a place where art confronts the most problematic elements of our collective lives. I’m sure you are suffering some personal attacks for your decision to produce “Seven Jewish Children.” To my mind, doing so was and is a mitzvah, a gift to the Jewish community and to a world that longs for peace with justice.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Making Peace in Israel and Palestine

It's Not About Our Anger

In 1984, knowing little of the history of the establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians, I went to work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a social and political action organization founded in 1917 by American Quakers seeking a way to offer Quaker youth an alternative to military service during World War I.

For the next 35 years after its founding, AFSC staff and volunteers worked with groups both displaced and endangered by war and its aftermath, including European Jews. As the organization evolved, it began to develop new advocacy programs aimed at the root causes of political conflict and social injustice.

When I got to the Michigan office of AFSC, it had two staff working on well-established programs, one focused on conflict in the Middle East, the other on problems in the American system of criminal justice. The staff for the two programs, Richard Cleaver on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Marc Mauer (and later Penny Ryder) on the expansion of the U.S prison system, were knowledgeable, committed and relentlessly inspiring.

Richard taught me to see that the story of the establishment of Israel, the storied “Land of Milk and Honey,” and the rescue of European Jews who had survived the Holocaust, has a dark side, the displacement and oppression, intended or otherwise, of Palestinians. No easy lesson for me, a Jewish boy from the South Side of Chicago, whose first exposure to Israel lay in contributing dimes to such charities as the Jewish National Fund. Richard’s schooling began a twenty-five year journey for me from Jewish nationalist to peace advocacy.

A poem by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine, Life Is a Journey, includes the phrase “From defeat to defeat to defeat.” The lines easily summarize my experience of activism on behalf of both Palestinian self-determination and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that acknowledges the real suffering of the Jewish people in Europe both before and during World War II.

The poem continues in a quietly inspiring way:

“…until looking backward or ahead:
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey stage by stage…”

From this I take the message that we ought not, as we all sometimes do, dwell on our discouragements and our losses, but remain constant, in spite of ourselves, in seeking justice.

It is easy to dwell on the defeats. But I also gratefully recall my experience visiting the West Bank and Israel in early 1988, about a month after the beginning of the first Entifada, the youth-initiated Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. The memory likely includes a good dose of wishful thinking, but I remember a giddy optimism that affected most Palestinians and many Israelis, who all seemed to believe that the Entifada was a history changing event; an event that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the first steps in the real reconciliation of Israeli Jews and Palestinians. I recall, in particular, several Palestinians ( Na’im Atteek and Elias Freij among others) who exhibited both courage in the leadership of the Palestinian cause and a passionate desire for reconciliation with Israeli Jews.

Disillusionment and despair—“defeat” as Rabbi Fine would call it—would turn out to be just a little further down the road. But the moment was exhilarating. When I returned from the West Bank and Israel, I brought with me the sense that those two places, locked in struggle, were together the freest and most exciting place in the world. They were the center of a political discourse in which nothing was sacred and the impossible was possible.

Yes, there was anger and fury, too. Not all Palestinian young people who threw stones at Israeli tanks were moved by a spirit of optimism. Many felt rage, some felt despair, some may have sought nothing more than a bit of revenge against the Israel they believed had stolen their homeland and robbed them of their birthright. Some of those who faced the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) died, killed in the unequal confrontation. Other Palestinians, many of whom had been displaced from their homes as a consequence of the establishment of Israel in 1948, felt no hope, at all; only a certain conviction that Israel would prevail at Palestinian expense.

Neither did all Israelis embrace the vision of Palestinians and Jews living side by side in peace. Some saw only rage in the Palestinian rebellion. Some saw in the new Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory the opportunity for a home of their own. Some “realists,” Zionists to the core, believed that a Greater Israel, dominant from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, was the only acceptable future.

But I was deeply immersed in my own Rodney King, can’t-we-all-just-get-along moment. And I was certain that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was imminent.

Along the path to that point, I had encountered a few rocky moments of my own. In the summer of 1986, in particular, when I was a member of the Ann Arbor, MI, city council, I had been booed off the stage by a crowd of hundreds gathered at Hill Auditorium to hear Natan Sharansky (billed as an activist for human rights on a global basis), who had been released earlier that year after nearly a decade in a Soviet prison.

As the introductory speaker on the program, and an elected official, my job was to warm up the crowd with a short what-human-rights-means-to-me presentation. In fact, the crowd went from warm to hot fairly quickly, enraged by the suggestion that human rights is a single seamless concept and must include Palestinian self-determination as surely as it acknowledges Jewish aspiration for a secure homeland.

Bad as my sense of defeat at Hill Auditorium was, it paled before the optimism I felt in the West Bank less than six months later. But as the poem would put it, the West Bank was not a “destination,” at all. It was a point along the way. I’ve had many such points since, moments of presence and accountability, and moments of absence and silence.

Now, more than 20 years later, my new friend Ari Roth, the director of Theatre J in Washington, DC, finds himself and his colleagues immersed in a moment of controversy of their own. On March 26 and 28, Theatre J will stage a reading of the play “Seven Jewish Children.” The announcement (not the actual performance) of the play has already kicked off a firestorm of criticism and alarm that threatens to overwhelm all that Theatre J has accomplished as a place to confront and discuss the major issues of our time.

Those who would narrow and police the boundaries of discussion in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have already begun attacking Ari as a self-hating Jew. The play itself, first performed in England, was almost immediately attacked as anti-Semitic. Others, who style themselves as Palestinian solidarity activists, will soon begin attacking Ari and Theatre J for not going far enough, for failing to expose Israel as an apartheid state representing Western imperialist interests.

The heat and anger that will accompany the performance of “Seven Jewish Children” will not differ much from the emotion that has driven me from the stage in the past. But I intend to return to the fray this time on behalf of the notion that whatever we feel and believe, we have an obligation to engage each other in a search for a sliver of common ground on which we might stand, and from which we might continue our search for lasting peace and justice. Call it another Rodney King moment, or call me clueless in Gaza, if you must, but it feels better than anger.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Securities Traders and Science Teachers

Letter to the Washington Post, #17


Stories about bonuses for the "vital employees" capable of unravelling the tangled complex derivatives that have nearly crushed AIG, and about the need to give school districts the right to fire incompetent teachers lead the news in DC (and most of the rest of the country, for that matter). It makes sense that people are deeply concerned about how we preserve businesses that are "too big to fail" and improve public schools that fail too often, but we seem to be drinking a kind of kool-aid here.

Though our public schools and our economy need reform and large infusions of cash, a different perspective on the various problems is in order. The average securities trader at AIG probably makes five to 25 times the salary of the average public school teacher. The proposition that those same traders ought to make, say, an additional million dollars more for untangling the trades that their colleagues made because they are the only ones with the knowledge and skill to do it right is an invoice that I, as a taxpayer, am not willing to pay.

But, assuming that we must fix, and not simply rend, AIG, let's consider recruiting high school science and math teachers, who surely have the requisite smarts, to spend their summer vacations untangling derivatives. They could start the summer at boot camp, getting an immersion experience in complex financial trades, and then work another seven weeks or so getting the job done at AIG and other distressed enterprises that the government is bailing out.

We could pay a substantial premium to the teachers for their summer work and save millions in proposed bonus money for investment elsewhere, perhaps in the school districts where our "derivative disentanglement" teams work during the school year. It may be a stretch to suggest that the unemployed securities traders spend the summer in a reeducation project of their own, maybe in basic ethics or debt counseling, but I'm going to go ahead and suggest it anyhow.

Jeff Epton

Marrianne Must Be Some Sort of Saint

What I Learned On Brendan's Way to School

This morning, pretty much at the last possible moment before heading off to school, something urgent suddenly appeared at the top of Brendan’s to-do list. He’s involved in a project at school with a few classmates; they are scripting and staging a television show of their own. Brendan decided that he didn’t fully trust that others would pull together the necessary elements of the backing soundtrack for their production.

As Marrianne was pulling on her coat and gathering her stuff, nearly ready to walk out the door, Brendan charged back up the stairs to fetch some of the items for his backup plan. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, not comprehending his plan, at all, and shouted after him.

“Get down here, Brendan. Get your coat on. Mom’s ready to leave,” adding, with a touch of anxiety, “What are you doing?”

In an impressive, but not untypical show of indifference to my mounting anxiety, he came down with a pair of mini-speakers he uses with his computer. “These need batteries,” he said, thrusting the speakers at me.

Despite my sense that we ought to be doing something else, I reacted in my own programmed fashion to the phrase “need
batteries". I ran up the stairs to get batteries (rechargeable, of course).

Meanwhile, Brendan proceeded on to the next step in his overambitious plan: burning, in 60 seconds or less, a few of the songs he’d already selected onto a CD he would take to school. I got the batteries and installed them, then rushed downstairs to try and get him back on track. But his computer had already sent him a no-go message about the CD he was trying to burn and he was off to test the disc in a different tech apparatus.

With a touch of desperation, he reported that he couldn’t complete the intended burn. In an attempt to both get him back on the priority task, leaving the house, and solve his problem, I said something rushed that hopefully sounded a little bit like “just-use-a-CD-you’ve-already-got and put-your-coat-on.”

“There isn’t one that will work,” he said, nearly giving up. Then he brightened. “Oh, yeah, the Timbaland CD will work.” And he was off again, running upstairs while I tried out a few deep breaths before I got to screaming at him.

Moments later, Marrianne and Brendan were out the door, coats on, speakers and CD packed, ready for the commute to work and school. I, meanwhile, needed regrouping. This, it turns out, I did quite effectively by washing a load of laundry in the bathtub.

Though it is a digression, I should note that I am eminently qualified to write about doing laundry, though my mother sees the fact that I do it by hand as a symptom of my insanity. “Please don’t tell anyone you do laundry in the bathtub,” she regularly implores. This is not because she is particularly affected by the thought that I am crazy. She just doesn’t want anyone else to know.

But doing laundry by hand gives one ample time to reflect. While I did the load this morning, I thought about Brendan’s last minute project and the wreckage he left behind.

A few blank CDs rejected by the computer were scattered around the desk on the first floor. The original contents of his backpack, unloaded to make room for the speakers, lay in a pile on the dining room floor. His CD index, Timbaland temporarily removed, was on the living room floor, snuggled up against a tripod and camera he’d gotten out for a previous project.

It all, I reflected, reminded me of myself when I get an uncontrollable urge to undertake a last minute project on virtually anything, which I should admit, is my favorite way to begin a project; riding on a surge of adrenaline, starting with a planning stage of, oh, say, 30 seconds, racing around the house pulling books from shelves and papers from files, and maybe, maybe, finishing the project before the next urge strikes (disables?) me.

As I type, I am sitting at our dining room table, a third of which, to Marrianne’s endless dismay, is littered with books and papers and newspaper clippings and receipts from project already underway. It makes me think, seeing myself surface that way in Brendan, that Marrianne, having lived with me and mostly loved me these last 20 or so years, must be some sort of Irish saint.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Alex Kotlowitz

A friend has pointed out that my reaction to the This American Life piece about my dad outlined my emotional reactions to the story, but didn't mention the quality of it. He's right. I ignored the fact that Alex Kotlowitz (read about Alex: here), one of the finest journalists anywhere, did a great job. Further, the story was all Alex's idea.

Working on the story with Alex was a privilege. And (to get back to me), it was a gift, a path to an enlarged perspective about my dad.

Nonviolence: A Good Idea At The Time?

A devoted friend of this blog sent me a link to LivingNonviolence. Margaret has been doing that--living nonviolence--for years, all her adult life, probably, and more. She's taken her skills and shared them with people in Central America, and people in our own country. She is a child of Rosa Parks and Gandhi and (I, a Jew, blush to say it) Jesus. Like Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Margaret has a kind of "quiet, noisy intensity" that you can't miss and can't easily describe.

I've always, mostly, sort of aspired to living nonviolence. But I've never felt capable of living "in" it. Still, I can't imagine a set of human values superior to those that are central to the idea of nonviolence (though the concept itself does not require a notion like superiority).

So when Margaret sent the link, I followed it. Not right away, but I did it. This morning.

The site is great. A team of folks, diverse in perspective, background and circumstance, produces it. A variety of writers, videographers and other artists generate materials for the site. And the site conveys a sense to me that living nonviolence is a different sort of thing than living nonviolently, which seems to be a more passive stance.

I watched a beautiful video called "What If." It's a substantial piece, full of important information and perspective, and challenge to all of us. But as I watched, I couldn't stop thinking that maybe Nonviolence, despite its long history, will turn out to be, like Capitalism, nothing more than a good idea at the time.

Of course, nothing is written in stone. Even capitalism might have been saved, I suppose. But, maybe nonviolence has a central problem that it has not yet overcome.

I fear that people who love nonviolence do not know how to speak to those who have accommodated themselves to it. Violence is a terrible thing, yes. But it is also exciting. And in our DNA.

No strategy to save the world with nonviolence as a principle tool will succeed without acknowledging the appeal of violence. I don’t know this. I simply fear it. And if it is true, that violence is in our blood and in our bones, no appeal to violence that simply dwells on the beauty of the thought will work.

A Vine’s Life

I wrote the first draft of this poem about 18 months ago, I think. Believe me, it was a lot worse then. Read this aloud. Embrace your inner vine.

Dieing back each winter
finishes the to-do list
for a never complain
never explain sort of vine
Come spring
every bud competes
as though a part of some different vine
These are my children

Buds reach
purposefully wander
further stay
in touch please
Even urgent messages
Water more water
Will do
Out here the speedway fence
other buds raced
last sunny weather and warmth

I cramp and have
no mouth to gasp
And I grasp
Every ounce of belief
Every inch of homesteaded fence
A prayer to my roots
Reborn in soil

I am I am I am
Bud this year’s life
Next year’s dream
connection to home
where the love
comes from
Who says it’s hard

Monday, March 16, 2009

Telling Bernie's Story

Dad’s story aired this weekend on This American Life. Listening to the story was a roller-coaster ride in mainly dark places. I hate thinking about the campaign slogan “Epton Before It’s Too Late.” The discussion of the slogan during the program made me tearful.

Worse than that was the audio of the screaming white crowd gathered at St. Pascal’s Church on Chicago’s North side, the crowd that drove off Harold Washington and Walter Mondale before they could speak. If I could, it is that moment, that hateful rage at St. Pascal’s, that I would sever from his memory. But I can’t. St. Pascal’s is history and it can’t be evaded.

Dad couldn’t find a persuasive way to reject race-motivated support for his candidacy. Once the campaign began, it became almost impossible for him to want to do so. He had a chance to be elected mayor. He and everybody else knew that the vast majority of his votes would come from whites terrified by the prospect of a black mayor for the city of Chicago.

I am confident that at any other time of his life, he would have been repulsed by the notion that he would become a figurehead for a white reaction. I am almost as certain that he was repulsed at the time. But he was simultaneously beguiled by the prospect that he might be elected mayor of the city he loved. His revulsion would have been a private thing. It would not have been shared with anyone, not with his wife, not with me, or with any of my siblings.

But if it was there, it would have been a cancer, and unshared, it would have been a potent one. It would, I believe, be the cancer of conscience and remorse that would run its course and kill him four years later.

During the campaign, Harold Washington told at least one person I am aware of that the Bernie Epton they were running against “is not the Bernie I know.” It wasn’t the Bernie I knew, either. It wasn’t the Bernie who was a progressive Republican legislator from Hyde Park for 14 years. It wasn’t the Bernie who worked with Timuel Black and others organizing support for socialist Henry Wallace for president in 1948. It wasn’t the Bernie who was viciously red-baited by Republican candidate for Congress Dick Vail in 1952. It wasn’t the man who continued to send his children to majority-black schools on the Southside of Chicago while other white middle-class families fled the public schools and, even, the city itself. It wasn’t the Bernie who flew to Memphis with my brother Mark to join the memorial march organized by the sanitation workers after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

But it is the Bernie that history remembers. That history shouldn’t be erased. But it can be enlarged. Dad was a good man who deceived himself and fell into tragedy because he wanted something too much, something he was not destined to have, something that in 1983 belonged to Harold Washington and a movement for change.

Bernie’s story is one I intend to tell someday. And I will tell it because I personally need to tell it. But I will also tell it because of the lessons it can teach us all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Courage All Around

I wrote this with the audience at Bus Boys & Poet's Tuesday open-mic night in mind. I won't make it there this Tuesday, but I hope to recite it--performing would be more appropriate, but my skills in that respect remain rudimentary--the Tuesday night after next.

The Courage All Around

Late-night honest
with myself
My boy shames me
The courage he shows

drumming at the Metro
Spare change pours in
Folded bills drifting like
snow covering his lap

Ten years old first
sharing a buck with a woman who asks,
then shooing her away when
she won’t stop asking for more

He goes about his business,
a lionheart tending his
pride of intentions,
while I flinch at the work

before me, at stepping up
before you, at speaking
my piece But where he’s
heading, where heart and skill

and the company of others,
the company of you,
colleagues with the same courage
to be the change

we can believe in,
that place, that thought, swells
my heart The world
you will build beckons and beguiles

and because the heart is
a complicated thing
I feel no shame here
I feel the courage all around

Monday, March 9, 2009

An Education Lesson from the University of the District of Columbia

Today's Washington Post carries word that "UDC Chief Wants to Cut Undergrad Major in Education." University of the District of Columbia President Allen Sessions said "hardly anyone graduates" from the program.

Post writer Susan Kinzie spoke to UDC professors in the education program who said that the problem arises from the low reading, writing and math skills of education majors. President Sessions proposes to address the issue by replacing the undergraduate program with a master's program in urban education.

I assume that Sessions came up with his solution in the middle of a long, sleepless night. The proposal bursts with ironic features. If the diagnosis is correct, UDC's education program graduates less than five percent of its enrollees because they are unable to pass a test that measures the skills their previous educational experience was supposed to teach them. So the school that purports to teach people to educate gives up on educating them.

Somehow, "the students who do graduate are excellent." The rest are so bad, UDC would rather not address the fundamental issues, but would rather close down the program. Heaping on the irony, they would like to establish a master's degree program that would address the further educational needs and aspirations of a tiny percentage of those who come to the school hoping to become teachers.

Marrianne McMullen (the person to whom I am married), who works on urban public education for the Service Employees International Union, suggests UDC go about addressing the program in an entirely different way. "Why not add to the front end of the college educational experience," she says. "Set up a program that addresses how these students were short-changed in K-12. In the process, learn more about how to help graduates of underperforming school systems. And give these graduates a personal experience they could bring to their own teaching."

We are a nation that has declined, for at least 40 years, to invest in urban public education, declined to invest in the institution that affects most deeply the lives of the majority of our children. Faced with one of the striking features of that relentless failure, the University of the District of Columbia is apparently willing to compound that failure, apparently unwilling to use its frontline position to mobilize for educational change we can believe in. We should expect more of UDC.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Walloped Lifeside

In which the previously unimaginable 25-syllable (26?) Son-Ku is introduced:

Stupid with desire to be better,
desire to be higher.
Walloped lifeside.
This is good.

WARNING: Do Not Drive While Using This Rare Poetic Form. It may cause drowsiness.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Outdoor Poetry Season

I hand washed a couple pair of jeans this morning and actually hung them outside to dry. It's only March 5, but it's also Washington, DC and our south facing back porch gets decently warm on a sunny day like today.

If it's nearing time when one can rely on good weather for drying laundry, then outdoor poetry season must be close.

I'm so excited. In anticipation, I'm listening to Jefferson Aiplane's Surrealistic Pillow.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

History Roars Back, What Are We Going To Do About It?

Writing in the Washington Post today ("History Roars Back," March 3) , Richard Cohen makes the claim that there are certain moments in history when big events affect us all and do so for many years to come. He isn't talking 9/11 here. He's talking Great Depression. He's talking Naziism. Cohen says that the economic collapse we are living through now "is not just an economic crisis. It's a historical mugging...This will hit the young particularly hard."

World news, Cohen says, hasn't mattered much to young people--meaning, I think 20- and 30-somethings--because what passed for news seemed irrelevant to them. "It did not matter to them what was happening in Washington or London or even Baghdad."

Cohen may be right that the news hasn't mattered much to young people, but it may not really have been a function of youth. More a function of the ways in which the mass society of the '50s and '60s became atomized, breaking into sub-cultures of millions or, even, tens of millions, each with their own specific definition of what is news and the separate and distinct cable outlets, internet sources, news channels and niche publications serving them that news.

But what Cohen is clearly saying is that we are being hit by a phenomenon, economic chaos and depression, that is nearly the same everywhere. The news is that the news is global once more.

The Vietnam War, Cohen claims, was news of the same type. Probably not, but it nevertheless got the attention of young people, who might have otherwise continued their drift out of engagement with the world as it was portrayed at the time by ABC, NBC, CBS and a few major daily papers.

"Rage was the result [of the Vietnam War and its suffocating draft]. The campuses exploded.

"The rage that is coming back will change the politics of our time. Barack Obama will either figure out how to channel it, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did, or he will be flattened by it, as Lyndon Johnson was."

In less than 700 words, Cohen makes the case that now is a pretty desperate time. People this time, perhaps by the billions, are going to be victims. For some individuals, the experience will be personally calamitous. Unaware that history was returning, we in the United States have been living the "American delusion" of endless and relentlessly expanding prosperity.
In the 1930s, "history had come roaring out of Germany and flattened everything," Cohen writes. He concludes with this:

"The beast is loose again."

But history is not the end of everything. Cohen's compact and grimly eloquent piece excludes actual people from any role other than victim or passive observer. He notes that FDR successfully channeled the rage that history provoked and Barack Obama may be able to do something similar. Perhaps without intending to, Cohen leaves the rest of us with little to do but await history's arrival in our neighborhood.

But the real question for the rest of us is this: If history is coming, what are we going to do about it?