Jesse KornBluth - Swami Uptown
Thought for the Day
Now, for you people who are saying, 'Well, stop pointing fingers at the president...left-wing...the media's being too hard': No. SHUT THE F--- UP! This is inarguably--inarguably--a failure of leadership from the top of the federal government. Remember when Bill Clinton went out with Monica Lewinsky? That was inarguably a failure of judgment at the top. Democrats had to come out and risk losing credibility if they did not condemn Bill Clinton for his behavior. I believe Republicans are in the same position right now. And I will say this: Hurricane Katrina is George Bush's Monica Lewinsky. The only difference is that tens of thousands of people weren't stranded in Monica Lewinsky's vagina.
--Jon Stewart, 'The Daily Show'
Mental Skywriting: New Orleans 2008
You know how, when you let you mind drift, it sometimes actually goes somewhere? That happened to me the other day. I was thinking about the aftermath of Katrina, and of this Administration's penchant for making sure the well-fed eat first, and the next thing I knew, I was looking at New Orleans, circa 2008.
Well, a vision of New Orleans, to be precise. And not my vision, either. Kind of a worse case scenario, really.
It was a white man's paradise.
Remember all those poor black people in New Orleans? The ones who produced babies outside the sanctified state of matrimony? Who drank and partied, stole and murdered?
Well, they're not coming back.
New Orleans is going to be an all-white city (with, of course, some black waiters in white jackets at some of the older restaurants). Think of it as New Orleansland--a destination for lovers of regional cooking, conventioneers and vacationing families. Like Colonial Williamsburg, but with a festival featuring the Village People around Lent.
Oh, I know what you tender-hearted liberals will say: The poor black neighborhoods of New Orleans were like poor black neighborhoods in any city, just with a higher crime rate--why condemn these people to wander the country in search of a fresh start?
Hey, no need for them to wander. Younger men can serve their families and their country by enlisting; they'll get three squares, health insurance for their families and, of course, death benefits. As for the women...well, the rich can always use good help. And their kids, who sorely lack discipline, can get some in their new homes--I mean, detention camps.
"Detention camps" will take even the drowsiest Jew out of his stupor. I woke from my reverie and gave no more thought to this bummer. But as the days pass, that bummer of a day dream comes back to me again and again, and now I see it just might be a valid vision--New Orleans as the next Baghdad, a shining example of American "democracy."
Let's connect some dots, shall we?
First: Punish the Heroes
The good guys were suckers. They thought we were all in this together. According to
this report in The New York Times
, they were wrong:
Two Navy helicopter pilots and their crews returned from New Orleans on Aug. 30 expecting to be greeted as lifesavers after ferrying more than 100 hurricane victims to safety.
Instead, their superiors chided the pilots, Lt. David Shand and Lt. Matt Udkow, at a meeting the next morning for rescuing civilians when their assignment that day had been to deliver food and water to military installations along the Gulf Coast.....
"I felt it was a great day because we resupplied the people we needed to and we rescued people, too," Lieutenant Udkow said. But the air operations commander at Pensacola Naval Air Station "reminded us that the logistical mission needed to be our area of focus."
On that Tuesday afternoon, the helicopters were delivering emergency food, water and other supplies to Stennis Space Center, a federal facility near the Mississippi coast. The storm had cut off electricity and water to the center, and the two helicopters were supposed to drop their loads and return to Pensacola, their home base, said Cmdr. Michael Holdener, Pensacola's air operations chief.
"Their orders were to go and deliver water and parts and to come back," Commander Holdener said....
Flying over Biloxi and Gulfport and other areas of Mississippi, they could see rescue personnel on the ground, Lieutenant Udkow said, but he noticed that there were few rescue units around the flooded city of New Orleans, on the ground or in the air. "It was shocking," he said.
Seeing people on the roofs of houses waving to him, Lieutenant Udkow headed in their direction. Hovering over power lines, his crew dropped a basket to pick up two residents at a time. He took them to Lakefront Airport, where local emergency medical teams had established a makeshift medical center.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Shand landed his helicopter on the roof of an apartment building, where more than a dozen people were marooned. Women and children were loaded first aboard the helicopter and ferried to the airport, he said.
Returning to pick up the rest, the crew learned that two blind residents had not been able to climb up through the attic to the roof and were still in the building. Two crew members entered the darkened building to find the men, and led them to the roof and into the helicopter, Lieutenant Shand said.
While refueling at a Coast Guard landing pad in early evening, Lieutenant Udkow said, he called Pensacola and received permission to continue rescues that evening. According to the pilots and other military officials, they rescued 110 people.
The next morning, though, the two crews were called to a meeting with Commander Holdener, who said he told them that while helping civilians was laudable, the lengthy rescue effort was an unacceptable diversion from their main mission of delivering supplies....
The order to halt civilian relief efforts angered some helicopter crews. Lieutenant Udkow, who associates say was especially vocal about voicing his disagreement to superiors, was taken out of the squadron's flying rotation temporarily and assigned to oversee a temporary kennel established at Pensacola to hold pets of service members evacuated from the hurricane-damaged areas, two members of the unit said. Lieutenant Udkow denied that he had complained and said he did not view the kennel assignment as punishment....
In protest, some members of the unit have stopped wearing a search and rescue patch on their sleeves that reads, "So Others May Live."
News travels. This is how you muzzle courage. Who wants to work in a kennel?
Second: Your Disaster Is My Opportunity
Who stands to benefit most from the hundreds of billions of dollars that will soon flood one of the most corrupt states in the country? In an email, a reader muses:
I'm having terrible thoughts right now, about eminent domain, and taking private property and handing it over to private developers--because our Supreme Court now says we can do that--and flooded houses in the 9th Ward, and levees that failed and no money for repairs for those levees because they needed it for a war against Iraq.
I'm seeing Katrina as Bush's passport to Urban Renewal for New Orleans, a way to get rid of Those People, and hand their land over to his developer friends.
Interesting fact: Some of the companies with fat contracts in Iraq are already on the ground in Louisiana.
Third: Never Forget 'Who's Your Daddy?'
In The Wall Street Journal, some rich whites in New Orleans--whose houses are just fine today, thanks so much for asking--
mouth off about what could be
The mostly African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans are largely underwater, and the people who lived there have scattered across the country. But in many of the predominantly white and more affluent areas, streets are dry and passable. Gracious homes are mostly intact and powered by generators. Yesterday, officials reiterated that all residents must leave New Orleans, but it's still unclear how far they will go to enforce the order.
The green expanse of Audubon Park, in the city's Uptown area, has doubled in recent days as a heliport for the city's rich -- and a terminus for the small armies of private security guards who have been dispatched to keep the homes there safe and habitable. Mr. O'Dwyer has cellphone service and ice cubes to cool off his highballs in the evening. By yesterday, the city water service even sprang to life, making the daily trips to his neighbor's pool unnecessary. A pair of oil-company engineers, dispatched by his son-in-law, delivered four cases of water, a box of delicacies including herring with mustard sauce and 15 gallons of generator gasoline."
How do they want the city rebuilt?
The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.
The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
Now ask yourself: Who is George Bush gonna listen to, wealthy white guys like Mr. Reiss, or a community of gangbangers who blow their money on crack and rims?
Four: So What Do We Do with the Black Refugees from New Orleans?
Some good samaritans loaded two cars with clothes and toys and headed off to a FEMA camp in Oklahoma.
Some excerpts from their not-so-excellent adventure
Two car loads of us headed over to Falls Creek, a youth camp for Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma that agreed to have its facilities used to house Louisiana refugees. I'm afraid the camp is not going to be used as the kind people of the churches who own the cabins believe it was going to be used.
Jesse Jackson was right when he said "refugees" was not the appropriate word for the poor souls dislocated due to Katrina. But he was wrong about why it is not appropriate. It's not appropriate because they are detainees, not refugees.
Falls Creek is very secluded and absolutely nowhere near a population center. The closest route from Falls Creek to a connecting road is three miles on a winding narrow road. After battling that 3 miles over mountains, you'll find yourself about 5 miles from the nearest town, Davis, Oklahoma, population ca. 2000. This is no place to start a new life...
[The FEMA representative] told us that some churches had already enquired into whether they could send a van or bus on Sundays to pick up any occupants of their cabins who might be interested in attending church. FEMA will not allow this. The occupants of the camp cannot leave the camp for any reason. If they leave the camp they may never return. They will be issued FEMA identification cards and "a sum of money" and they will remain within the camp for the next 5 months.
My son looks at me and mumbles "Welcome to Krakow."
My mother then asked if the churches would be allowed to come to their cabin and conduct services if the occupants wanted to attend. The response was "No ma'am. You don't understand. Your church no longer owns this building. This building is now owned by FEMA and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. They have it for the next 5 months." This scares my mother who asks "Do you mean they have leased it?" The man replies, "Yes, ma'am... lock, stock and barrel. They have taken over everything that pertains to this facility for the next 5 months."
Can you imagine: One day you're living in a neighborhood you love, the next you're under water, then you spend three or four says in the Superdome, then you get taken to....an isolated camp in the middle of nowhere. And you can't leave.
"Brownie, you're doing a great job," the President said about the head of FEMA. And by the racist standards of the vultures circling New Orleans, he is.
The Beauty Part
The boy never knew his father. His mother was mentally ill, so her son was taken from her when he was nine months old. A series of orphanages followed. At 12, he was living in an SOS children's village in Montego Bay, Jamaica when Johnny Cash--who had a house nearby and was a strong supporter of SOS--came to give a Christmas concert.
Cash stood with his guitar and harmonica and sang impassioned songs about what was wrong and how it might be made right, and the kid said to himself, "I want to do that." There was a guitar in the school's office. The boy looked at it longingly. The superintendent gave it to him. And the boy taught himself how to play.
Well, not exactly. He stole in order to buy musical instruction books. And then, before graduating from high school, he left the SOS home and turned to crime. In short order, he was caught with a gun--in Jamaica, that's reason enough for a policeman to shoot to kill. But he was spared. And sentenced to five years in jail.
In jail, he began writing songs. And thinking differently: "I sat there, I repented, I said, 'You know what, I don't want to be a part of this crime and violence in this country anymore. You know, I want to make a change.'"
He did. And now he has recorded a CD. His name is
Thought for the Day
She related that she urged Bush at the White House to fire FEMA chief Michael Brown.
He said, 'Why would I do that?'
I said, 'Because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week.'
And he said, 'What didn't go right?'
Senator Nancy Pelosi
(D - Cal), recalling her conversation with President Bush on Tuesday, 9/6/05
It took an epic hurricane, and then a mammoth human screw-up, and then an extra-large helping of government lies to do it --- but I'm back.
For a month. Because that's probably all I can take of daily blogging --- as those who come here often are well aware, I found that a year of looking hard into the toilet of the American soul five days a week made me physically ill. I understand very well the obligation I've taken on to my brothers and sisters in the virtual sangha that gathers here, but my first obligation is to see Little Uptown graduate from --- at least --- kindergarten.
A month is also the right length because it's long enough for events to become trends. Will this precious moment --- this deep wound, this great opportunity --- fade into same old same old, or will the Good People finally catch a break? Will we be so swamped by White House lies that we decide it just ain't worth the fight? Will the ripple effect of Katrina knock the economy to its knees, proving to one and all the simplest spiritual truth: It's all connected, every last strand?
There's a jumble of Old Business in my head. It will take a day or two to clear. Bear with me. And keep those cards and letters coming --- as you know by now: no you, no me.
Condi in New York: A Moral Question
There was a lot of press last week when the Secretary of State, on vacation in New York, went shoe-shopping.
reports that at least one New Yorker confronted the Secretary at Ferragammo:
A fellow shopper, unable to fathom the absurdity of Rice's timing, went up to the Secretary and reportedly shouted, "How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!" Never one to have her fashion choices questioned, Rice had security physically remove the woman.
Rice also went to see 'Spamalot' on Broadway. Anecdotal reports have suggested she was booed. But, really, wasn't that the easy way out? Shouldn't a theatergoer have stood up and said something like:
"Madame Secretary, you are as entitled to time off as any of us. But as your employer, I have to wonder why, in this moment of national tragedy and crisis, you are not in Washington, doing whatever you can to help. And I can't find one reason. Your presence here demeans your office, it demeans you --- and it demeans us. Very simply, I cannot sit here and enjoy this show with you in this audience. So on behalf of all decent people in America --- and your better self --- I must, with all respect, ask you to leave. And if you don't, I will. And I would encourage others who feel this way to leave with me."
And having said that, just stand there and stare at Ms. Rice. Talk about a theatrical moment!
Here's my question: Do you think she'd leave the theater? And if not, how many people do you think would walk out?
'I Feel Diminished'
E-mail from a reader:
I am a resident of downtown Houston, Texas. I am very anxious about the current powder keg my city is sitting on and I welcome your future articles about disaster plans. I have been thinking about nothing but that all weekend.
As I cleaned out my storage room for a coworker who has 25 family members living with her in her 2500 sq. ft. home, I realize if anything like that happens here, I'm toast! And I have gotten the message (crystal, crystal clear) that I'm it. No local, federal, state, ad nauseam officials. And I'm okay with it. I just want some guidance in getting with it.
My millionaire employer was overheard telling his ultra-right friends on the phone today that the hurricane didn't kill off enough people and those poor black women with all the babies should just be sterilized while they were here at the Dome since they had no business with that many children or sleeping with all those different men. Now, I ask you, who is really more ignorant? Him or them? I suggested that you could prevent a geometric increment of poverty-stricken births if you would round up the irresponsible men and sterilize them instead. I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm an alien now. I don't care.
I just want to cry all the time --- and I am not personally affected. But, with each diminishing comment people like him make, I feel diminished as a human. And my love for this great country grows weaker and weaker with every crisis. We are not helping each other and I, for the life of me, don't know why.
Thanks, Marie. Let's see if we can find you some fresh strength. Like this...
We Could Be Heroes...
An email from a man who just returned to New Orleans:
Looking north the only thing you can see is water -- filthy, stinking water. Now imagine a group of citizens, men and women, manning an airboat, several flat boats with motors and several without motors, several canoes and sea kayaks. (No official personnel were in evidence and when someone "official" did pass the operation they didn't know what was going on and could not provide any information or assistance.)
Now picture a constant stream of people being carried to dry areas by these boats, getting out of the boats with all of their possessions in plastic garbage bags, and thankfully trudging to a makeshift staging area. This has been going on since Tuesday from daylight to dark. Citizens taking on the task of rescuing their neighbors. We parked our trucks, put on our boots and joined them.
When we asked "who is in charge?" everyone pointed to Tim, a skinny guy in a Miami Dolphins baseball cap. He was joyfully and gingerly helping an elderly lady out of a boat and into a waiting muddy wheelchair. He lived in the Irish Channel and stayed behind after sending his family to safety before the storm hit. (He had not been able to find them since.) To give himself the appearance of an official capacity, he had his driver's license dangling from his neck. We became friends for life within the first 10 seconds.
There were two guys with their airboat flying down Napoleon, then returning 30 minutes later with boatloads of people. I asked Tim what their deal was. He said they just showed up on Tuesday and had been living in their truck ever since. He said they rescued more than a thousand people the first day by themselves. When I asked them about it, between gulps of Miller Lite, they just said "No big deal" and kept on rescuing people.
A news crew wanted to interview them. They said they had too much to do to talk. I think they just didn't have time for anyone that wasn't willing to get wet trying to help --- wet from that filthy, stinking, muddy water.
Some other guys commandeered their neighbor's big flat boat. They had been going deep into the neighborhood to rescue folks from 8 feet of water, usually from their second floors. These guys were wild. They hauled me with them for their last run of the day as the sun was setting. Imagine the sight -- 3 guys, unshaven, the driver with a 12-gauge shotgun strapped to the driver's console and the other two with pistols strapped to their sides, heading into an area known for looters and gunshots fired at rescue boats. On their last run of the day, they rescued 6 people -- one a 94-year-old invalid who could not walk.
And a few more success stories...
We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way. Early in the day, we witnessed a man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhood. He did all of this with a two-by-four.
One of the groups that we rescued were 50 people standing on the bridge. Most of these people had been there, with no food, water, or anyplace to go since Monday morning (we got to them Wed afternoon) and surrounded by 10 feet of water all around them. There was one guy who had been there since the beginning, organizing people and helping more people to get to the bridge safely as more water rose on Wednesday morning. He did not leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who had gotten to the bridge Wednesday. This guy waited on the bridge until dusk, and was one of the last boats out that night. He could have easily not made it out that night and been stranded on the bridge alone.
In a really rough neighborhood, we came across five seemingly unsavory characters. One had scars from what seemed to be gunshot wounds. We found these guys at a two-story recreational complex, one of the only two-story buildings in the neighborhood. They broke into the center and tried to rustle as many people as possible from the neighborhood into the center. These guys stayed outside in the center all day, getting everyone out of the rec center onto boats. We approached them at approximately 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day, and they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops instead of getting on themselves. This at the risk of their not getting out and having to stay in the water for an undetermined amount of time. These five guys were on the last boat out of the neighborhood at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, mentioned numerous times 'God is going to bless y'all for this.' When we got them to the dock, they offered us an Allen Iverson jersey off of one of their backs as a gesture of gratitude, which was literally probably the most valuable possession they had.
The point of these stories? As one writer concludes:
They make it seem like New Orleans has somehow taken the atmosphere of the mobs in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," but my family has been volunteering at the shelters and can count on one hand the number of people among thousands who have not said "Thank you" or "God bless you." Their lives shattered and families torn apart, grateful just to have us serve them beans and rice.
The Beauty Part
As a natural disaster morphed into something else and water turned New Orleans into a stew of despair and disease and death, I searched -- like many others -- for something useful to do. A donation. That was easy. But it was hardly enough. I still had to find a way to explain this tragedy to myself.
Searching for a smart thing to think is difficult when you have no frame of reference. But there are a limited number of stories in this world, and a limited number of responses to them. So I went to my bookshelves, looking for a writer who had contemplated great loss and human folly.
And there it was: 'The Plague,' the 1948 masterpiece by Albert Camus. I think Oprah should make it her very next book recommendation.
Thoughts for the Week
The world saw this tidal wave of disaster descend upon the Gulf coast. Now they're going to see a tidal wave of compassion.
--- President Bush
Our infrastructure is devastated, lives have been shattered. Would the president please stop taking photo-ops?
--- Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.)
What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this (chuckle) -- this is working very well for them.
---- Barbara Bush, mother of the President
Our coffeehouse was looted for the bottled water. I am glad. Those people needed the water more than we do. We are the lucky ones -- we made it out before the storm.
--- Business owner who lost everything to Katrina
In moments of crisis, style dissolves into character.
--- Business guru Warren Bennis
Character is destiny.
Who's Telling the Truth about Katrina? And Why Does It Matter?
Here's a stunner: According to a
, 25% of the American people believe that the sun rotates around the earth.
tells us that --- among Americans registered to vote --- '38% approve of the way George Bush is handling his job as president.'
That's like an all-time low. Nixon was more popular.
But it's really worse than 38%.
I don't know how many in the Earthcentric cohort are registered to vote --- or, for that matter, can even read --- but given how the worst are passionate and the best lack all conviction, let's say 15% of them voted. Three guesses who they voted for in the last election.
If 38% think Bush is doing a good job and we know that 15% of them are certified cretins, that leaves a resounding 23% of the American people who are not known to be idjuts who currently support our President.
One might ask how a President can hope to govern with approval numbers that low.
The Received Wisdom --- even among traditional 'Bush Is God' supporters like the Wall Street Journal --- describes Bush as "damaged" and "weakened."
In the upside-down, defeat-is-victory universe of the Bush Administration, reality is for suckers. You like facts? You're a loser. Believe what you read in the papers? Man, that's weak. Here at the White House, we see a bigger picture --- the way America could be, the way it should be. Reality is clay for us. We shape it. Bake it. Decorate it. And serve it up to you, fragrant as a Cinnebon. (That's 670 calories and 34 grams of fat. Mmmm, good eatin'. And good for you, too, so long as, like the President, you burn it off with daily workouts. )
So the White House isn't weakened until it tells you it is.
And that's not what it's telling us today.
Remember those military guys and Southern pols who kicked the stuffing out of the Bushies last weekend for being late and uncaring and barely competent to wipe themselves?
They're recanting today. And why? Because phone calls were made. And these careerists decided they really liked their jobs after all.
Liberal friends of mine have been strangely energized the last few days. They cried with Geraldo when he held that baby and cheered Shepard Smith as he told Hannity off, and they saw a new day dawning in America --- reporters asking tough questions, Administration officials stumbling, some white guy somewhere actually getting fired.
Sorry, kids. You're forgetting a few things.
First is that the White House clamp on the private parts of just about every Republican in Congress couldn't be tighter. Karl Rove has made it very plain: You're with us or with the terrorists. And so Senators and Congressmen who may talk big with a few scotches inside them knuckle under and vote the Party Line. Every single time. What George wants, George gets.
Read it and weep: John Roberts will be confirmed in a breeze. The estate tax will be repealed. And George Bush will look into his own colossal failure --- as
he said today
, "I intend to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong" ---- and find he did nothing wrong.
All of will make any sane person want to scream, puke, rend your clothes, curse the gods --- and worse.
Several of you have accused me of being 'partisan' when I talk this way --- as if, like Loose Canon, I get my marching orders from higher ups and send them my pieces after they're published and get a pat of the head for my troubles. Nonsense. I'm your basic old-fashioned patriot who thinks the words we use to praise ourselves ought to jibe with our reality.
What I don't get is why so many of you --- especially the folks on the message boards --- don't see that we are now in a crisis much, much bigger than partisan politics.
First, as others are starting to point out, this isn't about a natural disaster. It's about response time to any disaster. If Osama had blown up that levee, FEMA would have been just as lame. Oh, the response would have been snappier. But with Michael Brown in command, not even the Arabian horses would have been saved.
The complete disorganization at the federal level --- when our 'hands-on' managers finally bothered to show up last week, they devoted themselves to totally bureaucratic issues --- is catnip to terrorists, and not just at the Osama level. Splinter branches of Al Qaeda must be enjoying fresh dreams of future glory. Goofballs as government planners, Homeland Security wasting fortunes 'protecting' Wyoming and building bridges in Alaska, the National Guard depleted at home and its equipment stranded in Iraq --- is there any advantage our enemies don't have now?
The bottom line: Our leaders can't protect us. (Correction: Go the library and read the article about Ray Kelly, Police Commissioner of New York City, in the July 25, 2005 issue of The New Yorker. Kelly gets it. And Kelly works it. God bless and protect this man.) Indeed, they don't even seem concerned about protecting us. They do, however, seem very interested in the intersection of power and politics and money. For them, the looting starts now.
Several of you have urged me to "move on." Stop blaming Bush. Get positive. (Give me one more minute, OK, Denise?) The problem with this: memories are short. And Republican spin is very big. Already, although there are documents that prove they're lying, the White House spinners are blaming state and local authorities. You don't have a way to get all the facts. And who would care if you spoke up? So --- sigh --- you'll let this one go by, just as you've let all the others go by.
Except this is the big one. This is the one about your life, and the lives of your kids. This one matters. They're counting on you not to see that, to let Katrina be last week's news. And they're depending on you to be so busy that you'll go into overwhelm mode and fall wearily into their arms --- for you to admit, in effect, that the sun revolves around them.
I repeat: Your life --- your survival, and the survival of all your love --- depends on your paying attention, and paying attention now. Because the newsflash Katrina delivered is that we're all on our own here.
So you need a plan --- a disaster is no time to improvise. Where is the nearest safe place? What's there for you? Do they know you're coming? What can you bring with you?
I understand that this kind of conversation makes many of you nervous. Of course you want resist it, call it 'projection', dismiss it as 'alarmist.' Lord knows it's not what you came to Beliefnet for. Why, you wonder, don't the editors get rid of this lunatic?
But if you believe that nothing is more sacred than life --- and that lives are being threatened by the incompetence of our leaders --- you start to see that we are in a spiritual conversation here. And if you can get beyond the finer points of scripture and doctrine --- if you can accept that the acid test of our spirituality is not what we say but what we do --- you may make the leap to where I am.
Does George Bush mean well? Who cares? What he does --- or forgets to do, or can't be bothered to do, or, in all probability, doesn't know to do even if he had a manual --- now threatens the lives of Little Uptown and Mrs. Uptown. Four years after 9/11, I'm not cutting him any slack. I'm getting busy learning how to keep my family alive if disaster afflicts my city.
In future columns, I'll start to think this out with you. Those who want to help, please write me or post your ideas. The rest of you...you might want to read some of those Old Testament stories.
The Beauty Part
What a strange Labor Day weekend. I was on one of the most beautiful islands on the planet, soaking up sun and sea air by day and gaping at a sky filled with stars at night, but at the same time, my head was in Louisiana. It was very hard doing that bit of juggling.
I suspect that many of you had a similar experience.
Whatever your politics, however much (or little) attention you give to the news, you may well be hurting today --- nerves raw, hopes frayed, imagination drained.
So let us turn to the most healing art: music. And to Willie Ruff, an American genius --- poor boy from Alabama who became a great musician and Professor of Music at Yale --- and his very smart decision to make a solo French horn record in the Venice cathedral that has been home to almost a thousand years of legendary music.
To hear this CD is to be humbled. And right away, at that --- the purity of Ruff's playing knocks you to his knees. It's not the technical mastery that's so powerful, it's the spiritual sincerity. This isn't music: it's prayer echoing in a stone chamber, a collaboration involving Ruff, the composers and the anonymous believers who built this cathedral.
There are a dozen short classical pieces, and then the CD takes a turn to the America South --- to the black spirituals of Ruff's youth. They are wrenching, triumphant, holy in the extreme. And they end, fittingly, as the bells of St. Mark's begin to toll. These harsh days, I need
Gregorian chant, plain chant, and spirituals recorded in Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice
like I need air.
A Preventable Tragedy Occurs. Whose Fault Is It? The Victims (Of Course)
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
--- Rabbi Hillel
I live in a city where, when the planes hit the towers, guys who weren't on duty --- firemen on their days off, cops on the golf course --- jumped in their cars and raced to the World Trade Center to help. They ran up the stairs, knowing they might not get out. And they stayed longer than they should have, because they knew there were more people to save, and true to the terms of the simple code by which they lived, they died trying to save them.
Running toward trouble --- soldiers, cops and firemen are trained to do this. Parents do it as a matter of instinct. Religious people do it as an act of faith. Good citizens do it because --- well, they don't need a reason. They do it because there is something called "the right thing to do," and if you were raised by sane people and not twisted by the circumstances of your life, you know what it is, and you do it.
But here is
a report of your Federal Government's response
to Hurricane Katina and the flooding of New Orleans on Wednesday --- two days into the crisis:
"On Wednesday," said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., "reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!"
Why were these soldiers not rushing to help? Because no one told them. Because they were waiting for orders. And there were no orders. At the top of the chain of command, there was no commander.
No one in charge. How scary is that? The biggest disaster on our shores in a century, and our government's leaders were AWOL. Our President's deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the 9/11 attacks was no fluke. For all his tough talk, the man simply does not know what to do when things go really, really wrong. Careless in good times, he's negligent in bad. Criminally negligent. And now it looks as if as many as 10,000 people have died because of that negligence. (Add that to the nearly 2,000 dead in Iraq, and his numbers are starting to be in the same league as the record number of executions he authorized when he was Governor of Texas.)
You have read, by now, how the Federal Government cut funding for flood prevention work in New Orleans because the money was needed for the war in Iraq. How the head of FEMA is such an
inexperienced idiot that he was fired from the International Arabian Horse Association
--- not exactly a confidence-inspiring credential, even if he had been a howling success at that job --- and did not seem to know as late as yesterday that 15,000 people in the sweltering convention center were without food or water. How Dick Cheney, on seemingly permanent vacation, has decided to let George Bush play the part of the President without his help. And how Condi Rice, instead of coordinating the international response to our crisis,
shopped for shoes
in New York.
And we have seen this government do what it does best, which is to spin a fairytale for a nation of children. The Army finally shows up and George Bush hugs a Negro. Did everyone get the picture? Great. Now let's move on to our real problem...Social Security.
Blame? Not the time for it. Gotta pull together. But if we must blame anyone, well...why not blame the victims? They're black. They're poor. And they vote Democratic. (If you think politics has nothing to do with this, you are truly a child. Consider: If Jeb Bush were governor of Louisiana, those people would be alive now.)
They were poor, and often old, and not imaginative. They had nowhere to go, so they went nowhere. And then, when it was over, and they were left alone --- with nothing: no services, no communication, no government, no law, no food or water --- they went out and did what people do in that moment. They foraged.
Loose Canon and Bill O'Reilly and Peggy Noonan and others on the malicious wing of the Right must be afflicted with a hardness of heart that is life-threatening, for they seem not to be able to distinguish between a tea party and a disaster. In a disaster, you understand something fundamental. Brecht said it simplest: 'First feed the face, then talk right and wrong.' The waters are swirling, help is absent? You go out and get diapers and water and food for your brood. And maybe --- maybe --- you pinch a flat screen TV too, in the odd, misguided belief that you will soon have a livable home again, and electricity, and a life you recognize.
Remember 'The Godfather' --- 'A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with machine guns.' Say you condemn the 'looters' in New Orleans. If you do not go right on to condemn the crooks at Hallibuton and the other companies getting rich on the suffering of the Iraqi people, then it is pretty obvious who you are. Racists. Bigots. And please do us the courtesy of not denying it -- 'But I like black people' --- because there really is no other explanation for your vile views.
Yes, there are hardcore thugs in New Orleans. And they have stepped into the breach and established their own brand of law. It is the law of the jungle, and it is horrible and ugly. But it is not nearly so ugly as the lawlessness that the Bush government has spawned by its laziness and ineptitute and lack of caring. When those punks cap their l0,000 victim, I'll condemn them. Until then, all the criminals we need to care about are white.
Terrible emotions run wild in us these days. Anger. Shame. Disbelief. Hopelessness. Those are hard emotions to deal with. And we have been well-trained by the Bush spinners always to blame the victims --- to put responsibility on people too dazed or ignorant to take responsibility for themselves. For five years, these guys have gotten away with it. For much of that time, people like me have tried to pull the curtain back and show you how they make their cheap magic. Some of you listened. Some of you dared to consider that hard, scary thought --- your government lies to you, and lies consistently.
"No one thought the levees would break," the President lied.
Don't let him get away with it.
And don't let these right-wing pundits make you think they'd behave any better than the New Orleans looters if their kids were hungry and thirsty and hurting. Trust me on this: Once these soft white pundits stopped bawling, they'd cheerfully blow your brains out with their hunting rifles if you stood between them and a week's supply of Evian.
Crises are supposed to bring out the best in people? Then let these filthy racists shut their mouths so that those who want to help can get on with it.
Thought for the Week
To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
Deep Thoughts from an Island
Destinations are desirable in direct proportion to how hard they are to reach. It took us twice as long to get to Nantucket as it did to get to Paris. But when we arrived, we were not in another city but another world. I can't believe I'm saying this, but right now, I'd take Nantucket over Paris any old time.
We're sharing a house with friends. They're old Nantucket hands--they've scored a house overlooking the bay that's a local hat trick: charming, old, affordable. The beauty of the house is secondary; the big deal is the location. Everything directs you toward the beach and the water. Blue and khaki are the colors of the day, punctuated by clouds out of paintings by Renoir. At night, I sit outside and look up at the stars.
It seems this city boy has done a lot of stargazing this summer. I've learned few facts about the heavens--after the Big Dipper, I'm pretty much stumped--but I've had some predictable Deep Thoughts, mostly about time, and how long this universe has been around and how brief are our days. Yeah, that deep. But very powerful when you're sitting outside, and there's a warm breeze and the waves sound like small footsteps coming closer and the only action in the sky that isn't millions of years old is the occasional night flight to Europe.
In a setting like this, you very quickly get to What I Believe. This summer, I keep coming back to Pantheism. Taking yourself out of our busy world long enough to breathe in and breathe out without electronic distraction. In New York, I try to get to Central Park for a few minutes every day; I have this primitive belief in the healing power of green. On Nantucket, the healing forces are bigger--to sit outside at night is to be in a natural ampitheater, with a better show than the midnight Pink Floyd extravaganza they used to put on at the planetarium.
The breeze blows the trivial topics away. The biggies remain: work, love and meaning. Increasingly, now that I'm a parent, my thoughts go to children--starting, of course, with Little Uptown.
Little Uptown's best friend had a finger nearly severed last week. Jack is three years old, the first child of lovely people--you can imagine how fraught they've been. Over the weekend, I wrote the father to ask how he and his wife were holding up. "As Jack is, so we are," he replied.
What a breathtaking, eloquent reply. A six-word seesaw, exactly balanced on that comma. It's the parental nightmare: your professional life, your accomplishments, cleverness, health, friendships--a child in the hospital blows all that away. And so you ask your god for the impossible: 'Dear Lord, please spare our child his/her fate.'
Here, Little Uptown's future is far away. Mornings, she plays with dolls and watches Sponge Bob. Afternoons, she builds castles on the beach. I stand in the water with her and swing her like a metronome and hold her up to the sky, and then the world is that face and a powder blue background. In the late afternoon, with a beach towel for a cape, she runs across the lawn, hoping to fly. Here, ice cream can be dinner. She hugs stuffed animals as she sleeps.
I'm always willing to see improvement, but I have trouble imagining how it gets better than this.
Last night I wished--consciously, with all my useless heart--that all children could have such days. And then, as I have all summer, I thought about other children sleeping under this sky: our own poor and hungry, the children of Iraq and Darfur, you know my list.
And then I thought about George Bush. And was struck by a blinding insight.
George Bush: An Appointment with Death
When George Bush--the first child of George H. and Barbara Bush--was 4, his little sister was born. Three years later,
was diagnosed with leukemia. She never saw her fourth birthday.
What was the effect of
on her older brother?
George W. was only seven years old at the time. Although he knew that his sister was sick, George W. did not realize that she was going to die. In a 1999 Washington Post interview, he described how he found out that she was dead. He said that he was at school when he saw his parents' car pull up.
"I run over to the car," said George W., remembering the event, "and there's no Robin." He was sure he had seen her in the back seat, but when he got into the car, they told him she had died.
Unlike his brother, Jeb, who was only an infant at the time, George W. was old enough to grieve himself and to realize how hurt his parents were. He tried to comfort his mother and cheer her up, and she has said in interviews that she didn't realize what he was doing until one day when she overheard him telling a friend that he couldn't come out to play because he had to stay with his mom, because she was lonely.
This account leaves out two facts of import. One, that there was no funeral for Robin. (If memory serves me well, I believe George H. Bush's first response to his daughter's death was to play a round of golf.) Two, that George and Barbara Bush never talked about Robin's death with their young son.
George Bush's mental processes are a mystery to many of us--who can imagine how he internalized his sister's death? But half a century later, it doesn't take a genius to see its effect on his psyche. In a word, Bush is petrified of death. And that makes him, in practical terms, a coward. Which is the root of everything that's going wrong for us. A President must be brave, and Bush is not--death haunts him, death has driven him half-mad--and so he is obsessed with projects that put the lives of braver men at risk.
His personal project is immortality, a classic boomer dream; his real religion is exercise. If he jogs and bikes and spends enough time on the stairmaster, he'll become not just fit but bionic--in such amazing shape he might as well be immortal.
Part of that immortality is its assertion: I am strong above all others, a king when it comes to courage. Thus the celebration on the aircraft carrier. Thus "Bring 'em on." So what if that makes Iraq a mecca for terrorists? More bad guys for him to kill.
Of course he doesn't do the actual killing. And he risks nothing--except his reputation in a "history" that he scorns--by sending others to kill. He gains much, however. He is the Commander-in-Chief. The alpha male of his nation. Standing tall in those cowboy boots, he defies death.
Which is not to say he's invulnerable. He's terribly vulnerable--sensitive, easily-wounded, deeply aware of his faults. And so they must be concealed. He didn't spend his 20s masking the pain by drinking a distillery and snorting coke; he flew jets. He didn't luck into good jobs; he was an entrepreneur. The Presidency--which he treats like it's some great inconvenience, a chore that gets in the way of his real life--is "hard work."
He can't go to military funerals or even allow photographs of coffins because he can't deal with actual death. He can't talk to Cindy Sheehan because she reminds him of the mother he didn't have--the mother who wakes the neighborhood with her weeping, who dips her hands in her son's blood. Indeed, he is very much like his own mother, who has said she will not dirty her "beautiful mind" with images of body bags.
Justin Frank--the psychoanalyst whose brilliant book, "
Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President
" is just out in paperback--has taken us through much of this deadly psychology. If only there were a happy conclusion ahead. Just the opposite, I fear: Bush's ability to ignore criticism may be seriously eroding. And that means very bad days ahead for us.
It is a law of this administration that the President does not feel our pain. We feel his. When he is attacked, the terror threats miraculously increase. For the sake of his psyche, we live at Code Red.
This was OK when the war was young. We hadn't caught on yet. But now we see that the Emperor has no clothes--and while he may be buffed, he lacks oratical skills. Men and women have died, so many more will have to follow them; that's the new logic for 'staying the course.' Only we're not buying that BS. For the first time ever, George Bush is not just "misunderstood" and "underestimated" --- he's genuinely unpopular.
Everyone talks now about "timetables," but I see one far more difficult to deal with than a timetable for our withdrawal from Iraq. The bigger, more urgent ticking clock: A man who has no filter is about to undergo massive rejection, some of it from his own kind.
I, for one, do not believe he can long endure unpopularity and disapproval. But he is a man of action. He will not take this lying down. He will fight back. He will--in psychological, if not actual terms--declare war on his enemies. That is, on the majority of his fellow Americans.
It may not look that way. He'll cook up some evidence and bomb a country that poses only a modest threat. Or a terrorist attack on America can be exploited to further reduce our freedoms. One way or another, he must prevail--his sanity depends on it.
These are dark thoughts in beautiful days. I so wish I didn't have them. But in a place where only the truest thoughts seem to be coming up for me, these ring true.
Let us pray that there are sane men and women around our President who grasp that he is troubled--and who decide that they owe us their allegiance more than they owe him.
The Beauty Part
SDG. Bach put those initials at the end of his cantatas. They were shorthand for "Soli Deo Gloria"--to God alone the glory.
That sounds, in our time, like false humility. Back then, it was not. Pride of authorship wasn't even a concept in the Middle Ages. The world was tiny then--the borders of your town were the borders of your universe. If you wandered off, you might never find your way back. So people stayed home, did their work, prayed to an all-powerful God and died--usually in their 30s.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was an exception to every common truth of her time. Not only did she live long, she achieved much--and her work as a scientist, writer, and composer has been documented and preserved. She is "the first composer whose biography is known." And although she declared her orthodoxy, she was a rebel who founded a convent of her own.
Her total focus on God as the Ultimate Audience gives this music a gravity like no other church music. To listen to it is to be aware not only of the music but of the spaces between the sounds--a cosmic silence. It's a steady, unchanging silence. Some have called it a "stillness." Whatever you call it, it tunes you, calms you, settles you. This is music as meditation tool, prayer enabler, stress reducer. It intends to link us to the divine, and it does. Whatever your faith, you will be blessed by the music of
Hildegard of Bingen
You Want to Be Part of a Community? Look Around: You're in One Now!
Some comments on the message boards have pricked me enough to leave my boomer lair and weigh in twice in one week--congrats to those posters who got under my skin.
Just to be sure those in the cheap seats can hear me, let me say the same thing three ways:
l) I think it's utterly great that people find a reason to join communities that meet in established churches, mosques and synagogues.
2) I'm not anti-institution.
3) I've got no beef with structured organizations.
The point I was making is a simple one: "He not busy being born is busy dying."
Which means: Institutions that refuse to change...institutions that preach the Gospel of Received Knowledge....institutions that make no concessions to new ideas....those institutions are going to have a hard time in the years ahead. Very simply, unless they develop some fresh way of attracting new members, they're going to shrink. Because once you've had an authentic, direct experience of God (or truth, or the political process), you're going to want more--and, I'd bet, want it a lot more than you want ritualized gatherings that demand obedience and celebrate ritual.
So if the Catholic Church decides to conduct the mass in Latin, good luck to the Vatican.
If the Republican Party decides that a woman who's been raped must carry the rapist's child to term, good luck to the GOP.
If a media company decides it's better to wave the flag than dig for the truth, good luck to Fox News.
People have a choice. They vote every day, all day. And when they vote, they tend to choose what pleases them.
This is not to say that the alternative to church, party and mainstream media is a solitary session at the computer in the corner.
What the message board posters seemed to miss is that the Internet is a beehive of communities. Beliefnet is a community. The message board posters are a community.
In the twenty-first century, we will have to practice meditation collectively--as a family, a city, a nation, and a community of nations. The Buddha of the twenty-first century--Maitreya, the Buddha of Love--may well be a community rather than an individual.
That's Thich Nhat Hahn, in "
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
Get it? The sangha meets here. Right now. This message you are reading links many minds--and spirits--in a community of (I hope) thoughtful seekers. If we keep at it long enough, our little community may become an institution. And its longevity will depend on how flexible it is in the face of changed circumstances.
The great Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was once asked to summarize Buddhism in a sentence. The audience laughed at the impossibility of that challenge. "Easy," he said. "Things change."
But rich white men... powerful religious potentates... media moguls--their first idea isn't to ride the crest of change, it's to hold on to what they've got.
shows how well that works.
Thought for the Week
One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
- Albert Einstein
'He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying'
There's something in the air.
The music I'm listening to:
The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen
(1098-1179), a nun who wrote, taught and composed music. Her compositions, she felt, conveyed some of the sense of what paradise what like. Though she was no rebel,
her inspirations couldn't have been more unconventional
And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books...
As I look at my reading list for the rest of the summer, I see, at the top of the pile, the "
Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux
," the 19th century nun who wanted to be "the heart of the Church" and wrote about spirituality with admirable simplicity. Under that: three more books about direct experiences of Holiness.
So I was amused to read the
Newsweek piece on spirituality
and find that a massive team of crack reporters has discovered that people want....a direct experience of God. Wild! I'm Exhibit A. That, my friends, is rare. My life and a media perception converge? No way. And yet there it is: Like many others, I'm looking for the Ineffable everywhere but in an established religion.
The Newsweek piece was good, as these packages go. But it was far too timid in its conclusion. What we are witnessing is much larger. It's not just religions that are losing customers, it's institutions of all kinds.
Thanks to the Internet, groups like MoveOn.org are able to mobilize giant peace rallies and vigils. It's not just Iraq that has taken George Bush to an approval rating as low as Nixon's during the Watergate hearings. Something's stirring--people are tired of the old ways, the old lies. They're ripe for conversion by causes that offer high-energy, low-rhetoric politics.
Thanks to the Internet, Mainstream Media is running around like a chicken that sees the ax coming down. Who wants news put through a corporate filter, homogenized and processed until it's tasteless? Better to read a bit of American media, a smattering of the foreign press and then a bunch of blogs that interpret the news and speak in the language of the street.
Authenticity--it's what's for dinner. It's not always a tasty dish, but by God, it's real. And it's served by the Internet, the only mass church that isn't an institution. And which--except for porn, sports and finance sites--doesn't cost you a penny.
So....George Bush is about to tell you a new constitution is proof that democracy is flourishing in Iraq. Most media will roll that lie out without much comment. On the Internet, you'll hear--loud and clear--that Iraq is about to become an Islamist state that will enjoy much closer ties to Iran. Women (who fared pretty well under Hussein's secular government) now will toe the line or face extreme punishment. All hail the Internet!
So....Pope Benedict spent last weekend making nice to Jews, Muslims and kids. That, anyway, was what the Mainstream Media in America reported. What they didn't report: According to
The London Telegraph
Benedict dislikes the trendy, frisbee-sized communion wafers used by John Paul. And, significantly, he made sure that this World Youth Day included a group of young people who advocate the Latin Tridentine Rite, effectively abolished in the 1960s.
Benedict himself loves saying the Old Mass, and is rumoured to be planning to remove all restrictions on its celebration. If he does, traditionalists will be delighted, but others, who regard its Latin text as elitist and inaccessible, will be furious.
Yesterday's display of unity was in some ways illusory: very few bishops in the West - and almost none in England and Wales - share Benedict's belief in the crucial importance of disciplined, beautiful worship.
Needless to say, Benedict is no fan of condoms. And he's not big on personalized religion. How could he be? His product isn't about appealing to the consumer, it's about holding the threat of damnation over the consumer's head and forcing the consumer to heel.
But guess what? The consumer has sniffed the coffee being brewed next door. It's heady stuff. Direct experience of God? A God who doesn't hate sex outside of marriage? A God who sees women as equals? Who accepts gays? Those views may be 'bad' theology, but they sure sound good to people who like to think their intelligence matters. That is: educated people with decent jobs and bright futures.
At the present rate of attrition, mainstream political parties, old-fashioned media--and traditional churches--will look back on these years as the end of the Good Old Days. Yes, it may come to pass that the Vatican will have to melt down some of that gold plundered from the Aztecs in order to buy heating fuel. That celebrated newscasters and pundits who now dazzle us with their platitudes will wind up doing weather reports in secondary markets. And that newly-minded politicians like Ohio ex-Marine Paul Hackett--"I called President Bush a 'chicken hawk', and he is, so what's the big deal?"--can, just by telling it like they see it, become national figures overnight.
On one side, we have Rush and O'Reilly pumping out the gospel of the Republican Establishment. And a President who has never made a move that the oil barons and other big contributors don't like. And churches whose pastors somehow can't figure out what Jesus would think about Abu Ghraib--or what people really do together in the quiet of the night.
Increasingly, in order to go along with the program, you have to check your brain at the door.
Increasingly, people aren't doing that.
Yes, the country is divided--between, as I say, the Stupids and the Smarties.
That is: between those who like to think for themselves and people who will believe anything a White Authority Figure tells them.
Thinking for yourself and deciding you believe in Intelligent Design--that's Smart.
Believing in Intelligent Design because some pol or preacher says so--that's Stupid.
Newsweek/Beliefnet stories tell us
is that more and more Smarties are refusing to be lumped with the Stupids.
The Beauty Part
A great trumpet solo cuts sharper than a laser.
Maybe it's something about a high note, expertly played on a brass instrument. It reminds us that trumpets are the instrument of choice at the gates of heaven. And the instrument that signals the start of battle, the arrival of royalty, the death of a soldier.
The expansion of the trumpet beyond its military and ceremonial functions is not a new phenomenon. It started centuries ago, when composers moved beyond instrumental music as a project to duplicate the human voice. Individual trumpet players, eager to enlarge their repertoire, did the rest--they transcribed music intended for strings for their own use.
Classical trumpet concertos are a revelation--especially when the trumpet player is
A Day I Never Thought I'd See
"The hardest part of making peace with your enemy," a boy at the Seeds for Peace camp said on the "Today" show, "is that you have to go to war with yourself."
But enough Israelis did that to make this great day possible. And rich Americans--most of them Jewish--
have stepped up to provide millions of dollars to support Palestinian businesses
, thus giving thousands of Arabs one less reason to hate their Jewish neighbors.
Of course there was resistance, some of it violent. And the ultimate outcome of Israel's evacuation of its settlements couldn't be more uncertain. No matter. For once on the planet, in a place where no one expected it, sanity has--however briefly--prevailed.
'Days of Awe.' Here they are, unfolding before us.
The Madwoman of Crawford: American Idol
Nobody had a bad word to say about Cindy Sheehan when her son Casey--an altar boy, Eagle Scout and church youth leader--joined the army. And she was, like him, just a number when, two weeks after he arrived in Iraq, he was dead.
Cindy's not a number now. And she may not be who'd you want as your spokesperson, but you go to the anti-war with the soldiers you've got. Of all the 1,800 parents of the American dead, Cindy Sheehan was the first to step up and demand that the President tell her what her son died for. It's her moment. And we who want to end American involvement in Iraq need both to recognize her flaws and put them off to the side --- because she's the one down there, in the Texas sun, pounding away at the President and his war. And, for her pains, being misrepresented--and, more often than not, cheerfully lied about--by everyone from Gordon Liddy and Rush Limbaugh to Michelle Malkin and Beliefnet's own
On my side of this circus, there's only one question worth pondering: Is Cindy Sheehan the tipping point?
Last night, we witnessed one test of that idea--there were about 1,500 vigils to support Cindy, with between 50,000 and 100,000 people participating. 'The largest event we've ever sponsored,' MoveOn says.
I was one of those people. Little Uptown was another.
I took our three-year-old daughter with me to the Great Lawn in Central Park because I thought it was an important night. Why important? Because it took the participants beyond words. Out of our comfort zone. For my part, way out of my comfort zone--with thousands of New Yorkers walking past us to get to Shakespeare in the Park, I would be one of those 'weirdos' standing with a lit candle at twilight, hoping in some way that this protest/affirmation will lead to peace.
So there we were, father and daughter, in a group of twenty. Nice people, mostly middle-aged women. None had a public face I recognized; these were mostly mothers supporting a fellow mother. Little Uptown was the only kid. She had brought her magic wand, and was in a rocking mood, smiling and waving. I stood with a candle, greeting the New York media folk I knew, all of them surprised (if not shocked) to see me there.
The vigil was timed for what is, in the film business, known as 'magic hour.' The sun was gold, and the moon was full, and you could feel fall coming. It was very much the kind of weather we had here on 9/11, and I couldn't help thinking of that day, and the people I knew who died, and all the people who have died since because a handful of people in Washington had a shared hallucination they wanted to make real.
Those four years have given thinking and caring people plenty of cause to feel broken. But hope springs up where you least expect it. A mother goes to Texas, and, finally, people start to see the war as a personal drama and this moment as a showdown.
But this is only a moment. If we don't build on it, it's like one of those summer TV shows: big in August, forgotten in September.
What will give this moment real meaning? If more and more Gold Star Mothers step forward. If they come to Crawford and stand with Cindy Sheehan. Or go to Washington in September and stand in front of Congress.
Not veterans. Not political protesters. Mothers. Because a man who opposes the war can be labeled: unpatriotic, cowardly, gay. But a mother who lost a child--you watch your mouth around her.
On Monday, I'll tell you the story of a mother who supported a son by her physical presence outside a government building. For now, I'll leave you with an image: Little Uptown waving her magic wand, as if she could grant wishes. If only, my darling.
Thought for the Week
We'll take each new day to give
what we need to do our part
While we're learning how to live
with a lifelong broken heart
, 'Adam's Song,' about the death of a friend's child
On Losing a Child: How Should We Feel About Cindy Sheehan?
Richard Herrin, a Yale student, killed his Yale girlfriend, Bonnie Garland, in the bedroom of her parents' home in Westchester, New York. She was going to date other guys, so he smashed her head with a hammer as she slept. I sat with her father and mother for hours and hours as they struggled to explain what it meant to lose a child.
A few years later, I read about the murder of Johnny Pius, 13 years old and an only child. He had been beaten in a Long Island schoolyard, and then six rocks were stuffed down his throat. I sat with his mother for hours and hours as she struggled to explain what it meant to lose a child.
A few years after that, I wrote a small piece about an 18-year-old New Yorker who had died of cancer. And, again, I sat with a mother as she struggled to explain what it meant to lose a child. A few months later, I sat with her again--her 17-year-old daughter had been killed by a drunk hit-run driver. This woman had, in 18 months, lost two of her three children. I leave it to your imagination to picture what it was like to sit with her the second time.
And then there was Beulah Mae Donald, of Mobile, Alabama. Her 18-year-old-son Michael had been lynched by some Ku Klux Klansmen. Somehow the local cops couldn't find evidence to arrest them, but Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, had found a way to sue them, and, on Mrs. Donald's behalf, he had won all the Klan's assets and bankrupted the organization. I sat with Mrs. Donald in the living room of her apartment in an Alabama housing project for hours and hours as she took me through her son's murder and its aftermath, and how she had, right from beginning, turned her grief over to Jesus and how, now that she had some money, she was going to give it away to people who were hurting worse than she was. Can you imagine?
Those of you who have read this column from the beginning can guess one reason I kept writing magazine pieces about children who die and the parents who survive them--when I was 4, I was on the short list of kids to be kidnapped and killed. Luckily for me, the killer realized my parents weren't rich. Unfortunately for a boy named Bobby Greenlease, his parents were obviously wealthy, and so he was chosen for the kidnapping and the murder. I have always felt that I'm here by a stroke of great luck; clearly, I've always wondered what happens when a family is not so lucky.
But as a journalistic impulse, I also see this: I'm curious how people survive that which might well kill them. Because there's nothing more unnatural than the death of a child. To put that small coffin in the ground and live on--how do people do that? To be more specific: How does a mother of a dead child go on, having carried that child in her belly and fed it from her breast?
In my time as a witness to the unthinkable, I developed a deep admiration for these parents. Their bravery was breathtaking. Sometimes they wept or cursed or shared inappropriate memories because they were out of control and using me as a therapist--no matter, I thought those parents were just as noble as the mothers and fathers who nobly suppressed their tears so they could better tell me their child's story.
In my last marriage, I helped raise some stepchildren I love as if they are my own, and I would come home from these reporting stints weak with gratitude to see them sleeping peacefully in their beds. And now, as many of you know, in this final marriage, there is a child in the household, and the joy of that is indescribable--as is the dread of what it would be like to lose her. Those of you who are parents know what I'm talking about; those who are not can, I hope, empathize.
It is largely because I always see situations in human terms that I have, from the beginning, opposed the Iraq war. Like all conflicts of this kind, it is not about soldiers fighting soldiers; it is about demoralizing the civilian population. And that means killing civilians. The 'insurgents' have a special gift for this. But we're not exactly bad at it, as families who get it wrong at Iraqi checkpoints have learned the hard way.
And then, of course, there are our soldiers, some of them so young it's no insult to call them kids. I've watched "
" and a bunch of documentaries about the war, and I'm dazzled by who we send to fight. Yeah, aging reservists. But also, a lot of kids just out of high school. They have no idea what they're doing. How do I know that? Because when I was 18 I had no idea what I was doing. And my friends didn't either. And you, friend, probably didn't as well.
This is a very long introduction to today's sermon, which is about how we should think about
, the woman who has been standing outside the President's Crawford, Texas ranch in hopes of having a chat with him. Her son, Casey, died in Iraq. He was 24.
Mrs. Sheehan has all kinds of views. She has an opinion on Israel. She has a view about her income tax. And, of course, she has a view of the war which is not the one heard on Fox News.
If you have a shred of imagination and compassion, you realize that Mrs. Sheehan is in the middle of a trauma that will last all the days of her life, and you will be glad that you are going to sleep in the comfort of your own bed tonight instead of a motel room in Texas. Which is to say: You will cut her some slack. How much? All you have to give. Because she's in the grip of emotions that are off the charts. She hurts more than--please God--you will ever know.
Cindy Sheehan is a Compassion Test. Your willingness to support her in her grief--whatever your opinion of her politics--says volumes about your tolerance for people in pain who don't remind you of yourself. Me, I think she can be strident. And, sometimes, wrong.
But, dammit, I admire her guts.
I cheer her love for her son.
And I have her back.
We come now to the commentary about Cindy Sheehan by
. As some of you know, one reason I stopped daily blogging--not the biggest reason, but definitely a factor--is that I regarded LC, my ostensible debating partner, as an operative of the wingnut branch of the Republican Party. She is one of a bunch of pundits who get their talking points from the Republican National Committee or Lucianne Goldberg or whomever in the morning and then recycle those views, verbatim, in the afternoon. I have tried, since I decided to write longer (and, I hope, better) and publish just once a week, to ignore LC. It's not, after all, as if you can engage in a meaningful dialogue with a political operative.
Alas, because I have decided to champion Cindy Sheehan, I must now condemn every foul word LC has written about Cindy. I'm sorry, LC, but some things are bigger than politics. More important than 'respect' for a President whose most familiar expression is a sneer. A whole lot bigger than the 'Christianity' you profess to embrace.
When Jesus was crucified, Mary had a unique reason to grieve. So does Cindy Sheehan. So do all the mothers--on every side--who have lost children in this war. Give them respect. Stand aside. Lower your eyes. And if you have a tear left, for God's sake and yours, shed it for these poor people who gave all and will get nothing back.
The Beauty Part
It's the best film of the summer. And the music! The horns play cool jazz figures; under them is a groove that could have been created by Booker T and the MGs. And connecting the two are Ethiopian chords that sound exotic, space-changing, hypnotic.
Think desert cha cha. Cuba goes to Memphis. Desert trance music.
Like nothing you have ever heard before.
Mulatu Astatke is the man in charge of all of it: He writes the music, arranges it, and plays piano, organ, vibes and percussion. And--get this--he created much of the music used in this movie from 1968 to 1974. It's mysterious, funky, beautiful. It's