Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"I Can Forget but I never Forgive"

"I can forget but I never forgive."  Alice B. Toklas' trenchant honesty, as attributed to her by Gertrude Stein, her life partner and "auto-"biographer, reminds us of the difficulty of forgiveness.  While we may (not?) cringe at the cynical flippancy of the Toklas/Stein phrase, we all know the dilemma.  We can harbor resentments against siblings, parents, friends, long after we still remember clearly the incident we have yet to forgive.  How much harder, then, when we remember it all too clearly, or when we can see the offense still playing out before our eyes.  How much worse when the transgression happens at the hands of those we need most to trust, because of their power over us.

One obvious case comes to mind.  Everyone following the American media the last week has heard about to something approaching the saturation point:  Prof. Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates' arrest in his home for disorderly conduct by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, MA Police Department.  

So much of how we approach this story depends on whom or what we find to forgive or leave unforgiven.  Some will have difficulty believing that an Irish-American cop in the metropolitan Boston area can have as lily-white a record on racial profiling and other race-related miscarriages of justice as the Cambridge Police claim applies to Crowley in particular and the department in general.  If they have such a terrific record of race relations, why did they need Crowley trained in deprogramming the racist instincts of his fellow officers?  And yet, racism pervades the Boston area, Cambridge did something about it, and apparently Crowley did the best of any.  Perhaps we really don't have racial profiling here, after all?

Some will find it all too easy to imagine Skip Gates jumping to conclusions, paranoid or not, based on experience or not, about the intentions of the Cambridge police squad descending on his home as he tried to get settled after finding his front door stuck and having to go around to the back door.  Some of those will feel empathetic.  The President tells a story in his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, of waiting to meet someone for dinner at an expensive restaurant in Chicago only to have one of the patrons toss his car keys to Obama, then either a law professor at the University of Chicago, a state senator in the Illinois Legislature, or both, assuming that he had the responsibility for valet parking as the only African-American in sight.  

Others will feel less kind.  Only a very aggressive personality, that case might go, could become senior faculty in African-American Studies at Harvard, and one can all too easily imagine that personality erupting when beset upon by cops of dubious sympathies in the matter of race relations.  The fact that such an eruption does not justify arrest accounts for the fact that the police have dropped the charges, without exonerating Gates from the unofficial and all-too-human charge of behaving badly.  

Even in a news story, none of whose dramatis personae we have met, we have much to forgive and to attempt to forget.  I can claim all of the above sentiments except empathy for a racially-profiled African American based on shared experience.  Skip Gates' writing has had an effect on me--I remember for some reason reading Colored People on a bus pulling into Waterbury, CT en route to Virginia--but his reputation within academia resembles that of many who have achieved much and struggled with balancing whence they came and where they have arrived.  The same applied to a mentor of mine who grew up white in working-class Philadelphia and bled Yale blue, as the expression goes, by the time I knew and greatly admired him.  One needs to forgive them their eccentricities as one forgives and asks forgiveness for one's own.  One can all too easily imagine why Sgt. Crowley, as he wrote in his report, found Gates' actions "peculiar," though one has a much harder time getting from eccentricity to disorderly conduct.   
The press has made much of the President's invitation of Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer (not Gates' beverage of choice, apparently) tomorrow.  Some have begun to sound a bit cynical about Obama's notion of the "teachable moment."  Think about it, though:  an African-American president who used to teach at the University of Chicago, an Irish-American cop, and an African-American literary and cultural critic who teaches at Harvard.  Think of what that says of the reversals we've seen; and yet the conversation depends on an incident that suggests we haven't gotten so very far, after all, unless one could imagine, say, Larry Summers similarly arrested after having to get in the back door of the President's House during his tenure at Harvard.  As a friend noted in a comment on my entry last week, the reversals here have as much to do with class as with race.

One hopes that some true forgiveness and forgetfulness will lie at the bottom of the glass of Blue Moon (pretty good stuff, pace Paul Begala's ignorance) Crowley has, whatever brew Obama prefers, and whatever drink Gates requests.  One worries that Gates may not see this as a matter for either forgiveness or forgetfulness just yet.  His lawyer, asked earlier this week if his client had given up the notion of a lawsuit, said that that he and Gates had yet to make a decision.  One would hope Gates has the Our Father--"and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us"--on his bedside table, but one fears that he has The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, instead.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Fallacy of the Irish-American Experience

A Southern, Episcopalian, on-again, off-again girlfriend of mine gave me Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes once as a kind of peace-offering.  She assumed that it would speak to my ethnic experience as an Irish-American Roman Catholic.  I took it on vacation with me to Ocracoke Island as beach reading, dutifully opened it and made my way through more or less the first fifty pages.  I don't remember any distractions--an alliance of dolphins on a fishing run, even a flight of pelicans--drawing me away from the book.  I simply remember feeling disgusted by McCourt's shameless exploitation of ethnic stereotypes of his neighborhood and tenement in the South Bronx, particularly his comments on a Jewish neighbor clearly intended to express sympathy and fondness but which to me had the opposite effect.  His descriptions of Irish-Americans, including his family and especially his alcoholic father, struck me as no less reliant on stereotype. 

This reaction has troubled me over the years, and comes back to me with the news of McCourt's death.  McCourt wrote from searing and often bitter personal experience, though leavened with humor, the classic Irish survival mechanism, as for may peoples.  One cannot gainsay the veracity of his tale, or its horridness.  I read no further than his family's return to Limerick, so I have no right to speak to the tragedy they lived there.  I can, however, speak to the effect of my sometime-lover's operating assumption, one shared by the literary community in general and presumably by the enormous readership:  that McCourt's book spoke accurately to the Irish-American experience.

I remember as a child that my parents occasionally hired, largely out of pity, a colorful man-of-all-work named Jim Kelly we always called simply "Kelly."  Like McCourt's father, he had a drinking problem.  He also had a colorful way with words, and I found him and his wild tales of leprechauns and faeries captivating.  I have never really understood why Kelly stopped coming around, but have a vague sense that my mother had lost her patience with his drinking and the example he set.  On a fairly profound level, I think our experience with Kelly--my feeling charmed by him, my parents' charitable tolerance giving way to disapproval--acts as a precursor to my response to McCourt's writing.

In a course on the Progressive Era I took as an undergraduate, one set of statistics Prof. Harbaugh cited stood out to me above all others.  Of all the ethnic groups participating in the massive wave of immigration in the late nineteenth century, three emerged thereafter as the most successful economically:  Jews, Irish, and Italians.  One might want to argue that my inability to identify with McCourt's experience derives from my growing up in the era in which the Irish-Americans had joined the middle-class, even the upper-middle-class.  I saw John Fitzgerald Kennedy elected the first Irish-American and first Roman Catholic President of the United States as a first-grader.  McCourt's experience had little relevance to us as we spent Christmas Day at lavish parties over the years at the house of my uncle.  He ran a company bought during the depression by his Irish-Catholic father-in-law.  The poverty of the McCourt's rarely crossed our radar screens as Irish-Catholic poverty, even at my maternal grandfather's far more modest house.  My working-class Irish-Catholic friend's family, far closer in experience to that of the McCourt's, my parents simply dismissed as not "our sort" of people.

Unattractive snobbery aside--or not--here lay the point in a nutshell.  My mother's cousin had visited poor cousins in Galway living in cottages through which their chickens regularly ran.  My father's family, however, had worked as middle-class professionals at least as early as the period when McCourt's father drank them out of the Bronx and back across the Atlantic.  My paternal grandfather worked as a civil engineer in Boston, and a photograph of my great-grandfather I remember from childhood shows a well-dressed man in a suit with a large moustache.  The Lynches and my grandmother's family, the O'Briens, struggled early after their arrival, but I do not have the sense that they struggled for terribly long.  A photograph taken in my father's house in the 1930's shows the classic "lace-curtain" scene--striped wallpaper,  lathe-turned woodwork, lace curtains, a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo, a baby-grand piano with a songbook open on it (my grandfather sang beautifully, though I do not know whether he or anyone else played), and my grandmother presiding over all in an empire-waisted lace-adorned dress, the picture of middle-class self-satisfaction.  And that says nothing of the modest beach house in the Irish-American enclave of Hull at Nantasket Beach, near Quincy.

A well-to-do Irish-Catholic resident of a retirement community in Maine where my mother lived for a year joined us for dinner one evening about a year after the release of Angela's Ashes.  The book came up, and she and I voiced agreement that the book did not speak to the Irish-American experience as we knew it.  It makes me uncomfortable to say this, but I have been protected from the ghastly struggle McCourt and his brothers describe.  I do not mean that simply in the sense that I grew up in the era when the Irish-American middle class had established itself.  A working-class Irish-American experience remains, perhaps best personified by the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck film Good Will Hunting, set between the worlds of South Boston and Cambridge.  My father grew up in more affluent--then, anyway--Dorchester, and my uncle graduated from Harvard.  Southie to me stands for recalcitrant racism and willful provincial ignorance.  I have never identified with it, never even set foot there.

I mean something more elemental.  The centuries-long British misrule of Ireland left in its wake horrific poverty in the Irish countryside, and horrible social injustice throughout.  One cannot overlook the fact, however, that under the British an urban middle-class had arisen by the nineteenth century.  I do not know why my father's side of the family same, or exactly where from.  Lynch (Liaosingh in Irish) has a ubiquity in Ireland not quite on the level of Smith.  I feel rage at the facts of the McCourt's life, but at the same time I feel deeply patronized by those who assume McCourt speaks for the Irish-American experience in general, the experience of the second-most affluent of the late-nineteenth century immigrant groups.  It is not that more affluent Irish-Americans have not long felt left out at the table of American mainstream acceptance.  But in the particularity of the story he tells, McCourt speaks for himself, and those who lived a poverty like his.  He does not speak for a more general Irish-American experience in which his family sadly did not participate until he reaped the profits of the success of Angela's Ashes and lived, until his death in the last few days, a life very different from the one on which he originally embarked.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Hu's on First!?" Semantics and the Sotomayor Hearings

To help us identify all the players, at least one internet service has provided a seating chart for the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings to consider the president's nomination of 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States, where she would replace retiring Justice David Souter.  The seating chart reminds one of the defensive lineup graphics the networks regularly use in the top and bottom halves of the first inning of a baseball game, showing who plays where in the field.  Since it generally precedes the throwing of the first pitch, such a graphic does not show Hu's on first, since nobody has reached the bases yet.

The comparison--and the reference to a silly comic routine--seem apt for a number of reasons, not least the wheedling over the demise of white male prerogatives unleashed by the Republicans this week, particularly by their two most visible participants, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.  Graham as much as admitted his role in a losing cause, and seemed not to rule out switching uniforms to join the winning side, citing shrewdly the consequences of elections.  Translation:  he knows that he's not Hu, and certainly is not on first.

The "Hu's on first!?" gag, of course, pivots on both the unfamiliarity of a Chinese name seventy-five years ago or so, and its homonymity with the English word "who." Hence the exclamation point followed by a question mark.  The statement becomes a question if one mistakes a foreign name for an English pronoun.

"Hu's on first!?" comes to mind because Graham and Sessions both fail to see the upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland quality of their complaints against Judge Sotomayor.  Jeff Sessions lost a nomination to a federal judgeship because of comments he made suggesting bias in favor of the Ku Klux Klan and hostile to the NAACP.  He can't see that Sotomayor's remarks about her Latina wisdom do not amount to the same egregious, racist error he made, but rather speak to the benefits of diversity.  Hu's about to make it to first, and he's steamed.       

Likewise the ostensibly more likeable Graham.  He tried to turn the tables on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" observation by suggesting that had he made a remark about the superior wisdom of white men, it would have destroyed his political career.  He enjoined her with barely concealed frustration to exercise greater care in her public speaking.  He misses two points (at least).  First, as a Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor would--will--become immune to the discipline of the electoral process.  That does not mean she can shoot her mouth, as these hearings will have indelibly reminded her.  It simply means that Graham as a politician plays a different role than Sotomayor as a putative Supreme Court Justice.

More important, Sotomayor felt the need to say what she did precisely because white males such as Graham have said precisely what Graham admits--grudgingly?--he cannot any longer say, and said it for too long, in public, anyway.  Enough hatred of the ethnic "other" remains in states like Sessions' Alabama and Graham's South Carolina (we could include, of course, Kyl's Arizona, Hatch's Utah, and so on) that we need not imagine too hard what gets said in private.  As for Graham, he got picked off first, it's Hu's chance to run the bases, and he wants to do everything he can to hobble her.  As though her broken ankle doesn't hobble her sufficiently.

I hope using one of the sillier gags from the history of American comedy as a key for unlocking the inanity of the attack on Sotomayor from the Republicans has served a purpose.  As Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. Feingold, and Sen. Franken spoke in detail to her record as a judge on a range of issues, the Republicans directed the vast majority of their attention to a reverse discrimination suit filed by a firefighter who had already won a discrimination case on disability grounds, and one statement made in a speech to law students.  "Hu's on first!?"  Damned right she is, and the sooner the Republicans accept the changing demographics of our society, the sooner we'll have Supreme Court nomination hearings that don't send one party, at least, back to the dugout with mud on their faces and their uniforms in tatters. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Unwonderful Land of Or...

Imagine a scene in a private hospital in a medium-sized city, part of a sprawling string of metropolitan, suburban, and beach communities in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States.  Visualize a windowless room perhaps 15' x 8' (5 x 2.7 m), with nine people sitting in a ring, one of those people a candidate for a residency in hospital chaplaincy training.  Listen as the first seven to ask questions do so by reading, rote, from a list of questions supplied to the candidate twenty minutes in advance of the interview.  

Only the last two interviewers made the assigned questions assigned come alive as interesting, worthy of serious thought, though deadpanned with a lack of affect that left just the barest opening for connection, until the interview had ended.  True, one of the others had smiled; she had then fallen behind the mask of impersonality as she read her question with virtually no expression.  The candidate, a former academic used to intellectual exchange, found all this affectlessness baffling, and never performed up to ability until the last two, interesting questions.  Most baffling of all:  the committee seemed to find the candidate's performance baffling, and sub-par, except for the responses to the final two questions. 

Now consider the same room about an hour later.  The director of chaplaincy services remains, but three new colleagues have joined him.  Whereas the first group included, along with the medical professionals involved in training the residents, only two chaplains--the director and the one who asked the interesting question interestingly--the second consisted of nothing but chaplains, two in their thirties, the others in their sixties.  Here the script consisted only of the candidate's application, a series of essays-cum-resume that in this case came to about eleven pages.  The conversation could not have gone more differently, even though the candidate had a moment of fear at first, wondering if he would find a way to connect with these people.  The doubts dissipated in the first five-to-ten minutes, amid a blitz of challenging questions, careful consideration of the responses, and even the occasional bit of laughter.  An interesting conversation which ended with the candidate judged to have done well.  

The candidate learned the opinions of the two committees after about a forty-five minute wait in the parking garage, the hallway, even the adjacent sidewalk briefly.  It felt a bit like the wait after a Ph.D. oral examination.  The answer:  maybe.

For the candidate, an afternoon in the unwonderful land of or...

The difference between the two experiences--mine, two days ago--makes one wonder a number of things, beginning with whether a residency at that particular hospital would work.  A degree of ambivalence still characterizes my thoughts about hospital chaplaincy, even as the opportunity to walk around with a chaplaincy intern fifteen or so years my senior helped me, at least in retrospect, see myself in such a setting, and even imagine a specialty in mental health.  Or...

One also has to consider the conservative culture of the region itself.  This again speaks to fit, and reminds me of struggles, one considerably more successful than the other, waged in two earlier periods of my life in the same state, though in areas distinctly different from each other and from this one, and neither near my great protectress, the sea.  Or...

Then comes the issue that seems most striking and important.  The culture of medicine places professionalism ahead of personality, partly as a protective shield against burnout, but also as an extension of the notion of medicine as science.  It strikes me as more honest to call it an art practiced with the benefit of scientific knowledge, something a bit different, if not another thing altogether.  One strongly suspects people who buy into the scientific model of left-brain dominance.

The culture of ministry, on the other hand, when not given over to the academic practice of theology, tends to encourage contact with the real person seeking consolation or guidance.  Ministry requires some of the same persona-as-self-preservation that one sees in medicine, especially in a hospital environment--hence my initial moment in the second interview of wondering how to make contact with the group--but with an enormous and even existential difference.  Chaplains, doctors, and nurses all manage a series of critical and uncritical moments aimed at the hope of a successful outcome.  

One suspects, though, that a chaplain would find a successful outcome harder to specify, let alone judge.  For all the improvisational character of the practice of medicine that leads one to call it an art, chaplaincy draws personalities much more likely to demonstrate right-brain dominance.  Chaplains work from training, but also from instinct and faith, from an ability to empathize without losing sight of the patient's--and the patient's family's, or both at once and sometimes against each other's--best interest.  Different job description, different skill set, likely to appeal to very differently personalities from those to whom practicing medicine appeals.  Or.. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When Impatience May not Be

Patience has never ranked high among my list of virtues.  Nor does one think of it as an American trait.  So, the switch from media coverage saturated by the Iran election protests, to the coverage of Michael Jackson's death and its aftermath, with a sidebar for those interested in the story of Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), should have come as no surprise.  My inability to let the Iranian story fade from the screen may speak less to patience than stubbornness, but its muted coverage on television simply sent me all the more to the Internet, and particularly the social networks. 

One can measure patience in various ways, from one's ability--or not--to watch an entire YouTube video that appears headed nowhere in particular, to one's need to look at as many YouTube videos as appear on one's Facebook page, even if only momentarily.  Impatience, you say?  No, the patient persistence to learn from the plethora of images awash on the social networking sites, where one must carefully sift through to avoid repetition, unless of course one wants to see a particular event from several angles, as for example, in the death of Neda Agha-Soltan.

What, exactly, do we seek to learn, that the intrusion of pop and political bathos has such power to annoy at least some of us, largely thirty-five and older in my highly unscientific gauge of the responses of my Facebook friends?  An idea occurred to me several days ago emailing a former student annoyed with me for my open criticism on my Facebook page of the obsession with a pedophile pop star's death.  I watched the Islamic Revolution unfold in 1978-79, and vividly remember Robert MacNeil interviewing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from a suburb of Paris shortly before his tumultuous return to Tehran.  PBS had to carry the burden of my interest; but then, as now, one sensed the unfolding of a great historical moment.  I felt a great sense of standing for the right of self-determination, though one greatly feared where it would take Iran.

However much one might wish for the success of the current protests, that seems unlikely.  For some, quite probably some television producers among them, that justifies taking Iran off the front burner.  For those of us who have become fixated on the historic moment of the protests, the unlikeliness of success simply stirs fears of what happens next.  If one digs hard enough, the images of beaten students--including one that came to my attention today, a face so grotesquely swollen and worked over that one imagines death came from cerebral hemorrhage long before the beating stopped--and calls for protests and commemorations from Mousavi's website exist.

Two thoughts come to me as framing devices for all this, apart from a certain obsessive fascination I will not deny.  First, we have not had an opening into the workings of Iranian society since Ayatollah Khomeini disappeared into an enormous crowd thirty years ago.  We've sighted a whale coming up for breath, and we want to take its measure as much as we can before, as much as we might hope otherwise, it disappears again into the deep.  To non-specialists such as myself, the existence of an Iranian (not the Lebanese) Hezbollah, the basij paramilitary that Khomeini instigated, and the byzantine plethora of mullah's councils, not to mention the presence of mujahedin insurgents (some apparently the CIA'S dirty work) have all come as news.  We knew Iran had a brutal regime that hated us; we didn't know quite how brutal for quite how long, and that they blame us more for providing Iraq with chemical weapons than for the Moussadegh coup in 1953, which they blame more on the British.  Iran has only recently come back on our radar screen with this degree of clarity; we now need to make up for lost time. 

Second, and perhaps more controversially--though for some, perhaps not--the frightening sense that we have seen this before, but not in Iran, drives our interest.  Think of the similarities.  An elderly autocrat backs a militant nationalist two generations younger, a man with a fanatical street following, unafraid of inciting violence, whose foreign policy consists of name-calling when it suits him and alliances of convenience, particularly with Russia, when that suits him, and who maintains a constant class warfare, right down to the blatant patronage of the downtrodden for the sake of political loyalty while paying little attention to the state of the economy itself.  One can take this too far.  Khamenei has greater power than did von Hindenburg; if he falls, a new Supreme Leader or a new theocratic government will emerge, rather than the vacuum Hitler could exploit.  Ahmadinejad did not have to invent the basij as Hitler did his brown shirts, and yet his cultivation of their loyalty amounts to much the same thing.  One does not expect a world war as the outcome of all this, and yet with Ahmadinejad in power Obama will have a more difficult time keeping Netanyahu's bombers on the ground, and what happens then only the wonks in the military, intelligence, security, and foreign policy apparatuses will want to hazard a guess.

My father never made it out of boot camp in World War II, except to an Army hospital in Atlanta.  Still, those of us in my generation, or at least the children of my father's generation have a sense of connectedness to World War II.  We never saw Hitler or Roosevelt, but they shaped our parents' lives.  My uncle ran a factory that made razor blades for the Army when he couldn't get a contract for their main product, light rifles.  We may not face World War III--Iran apparently lacks the capability to force one, at least for now--but we certainly do have in Iran a secular leader if not a religious leader, as well, with dangerous regional ambitions, presiding over a badly fissured country by brutally imposing their will.  

The information revolution permits us to watch the resistance to this theo-fascist state.   From my perspective, those of us who would brook no distractions to this phenomenon may open ourselves to charges of cultural fascism.  Whatever.  It does not interest me that cable news ratings have skyrocketed during the Jackson coverage, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out recently on his Facebook page.  People are getting killed in Iran in the name of freedom, for calling out that God is great (as they did in 1979) from the rooftops.  We are watching events potentially of the importance of the Kristallnacht in 1938.  May Mr. Jackson's soul rest in peace, but let's please keep our perspective here.  No moonwalk ever mattered as much as the gauntlet Iranians walk every day, and at this moment of fervor, when the regime's hide has cracked, the media should recall that some of us have the patience to stay with the hard stories.  Precious few, perhaps, but some.  If that makes us cultural fascists or snobs or whatever, so be it.