Thursday, December 29, 2011


How do we define faith? As in faith in someone or something, faith that one can believe our leaders, faith in our own integrity and, ultimately, in God or some formulation of spirituality. Some, of course, profess to have no faith, at least not of the spiritual variety. God help them.
Few questions in our lives trump those that arise around what we find worthy of our faith. For many these never get beyond personal relationships and issues, matters such as politics having either no interest or yielding no figures considered worthy of trust. That way, one fears, lies despair, the absence of or emotionally absent refusal to hope. Such a malaise, for example, lies behind our lack of confidence in Congress at the moment.
Just as those in whom we have faith must earn it, we have to earn the ability to have faith. Four years ago Mother Teresa’s diaries revealed her struggles with faith, struggles that caused some shock among those who misunderstand the way faith works in our lives. Not a steady state, it eludes us at times in the face of events that confound it. Faithfulness does not imply immunity from such moments, it describes the steadfastness with which one fights against them.
I remember with some poignancy an acknowledgment of and exhortation to persist in this fight to preserve faith and the forms it takes in our lives. I had just entered a monastic community outside of Charleston, South Carolina as a prospective member, or postulant, postulating or hypothesizing myself as a monk, if you will. One of the older brothers who had recently transferred from another order leaned toward me one day in the hall that ran through the infirmary. In a monastic version of a famous scene from The Graduate—“One word: plastics”—he spoke one word to me: “Persevere.” Take everything that comes at you and keep going, no matter what. Expect difficulties and get past them.
I think of that advice often, albeit at the time I did not take it, leaving the monastery ten months later. So many times we have faith in the wrong thing, or in the right thing or person but for the wrong reason. The left-wing deserters from the Obama bandwagon come to mind as an example of misconstrued faith, faith that Obama would mirror their own desires perfectly. As a yoga classmate lamented recently, we do not come by perfection easily; perhaps we should prick ourselves when we think we have found it.
A Dominican friar recently gave an Advent retreat at my church. In his first talk he mentioned the opposition between fantasy, based in despair, and hope or faith, which yield imagination. It struck me as a useful model for me, however imperiled any such generalization and most binary oppositions as a genre of thought. My own thinking certainly bears out his logic. When I lurch from idea to idea now, I try to interrogate its motivation. It has become a useful exercise.
Faith acknowledges the positive in life, the fact that good exists, that our lot can improve, past or present evidence to the contrary. Faith does not expect crazy chances to triumph, but quiet perseverance. Faith does not give into despair, but fights it valiantly. Faith respects the steadfast and does not require the spectacular.
I wonder if our current malaise does not reveal a crisis of faith, a tendency to yield to despair. We need to recognize this crisis before we truly lose our bearings. If we do, God help us.

Chapel Hill, NC
December 23, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I watch a certain amount of CNN’s newscasts; apology complete. Over the weekend they ran a story that reiterated one that has cropped up in many forms in recent years: do we over-diagnose and over-medicate kids for psychological and behavioral disorders, autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) leading the pack? The question seems to admit the easy answer of “yes.” Too easy. For complex patterns of sometimes intertwined behavioral sets, no easy answer can account for all variables, let alone all outcomes, benign or otherwise.

Usually in such instances one can simply defer to the professionals, but in the case of childhood behavioral maladies we lack the consensus of opinion to render that recourse viable. The problem begins with the fact that kids will by definition sometimes come in an unruly package. Defining when that unruliness crosses a line to pathology poses problems even for professionals, let alone putting a name on the transgression, given the resemblances among the identifiable disorders, and the genetic relatedness of some. Autism and ADHD, for instance, share a chromosomal allele.
The plot thickens when we add medications to the story, for to some battered parents and teachers they seem to offer that elusive quark, the “quick fix.” And here some professionals object with many layfolk that we use too many meds too freely. Perhaps; and no wonder, since some really work, or seem to, or do for a time before our systems acclimate to them—the case with Ritalin, the wonder-drug of ADHD.

But at this point the story can get weird. Some argue that the alleged fact of ADHD’s or autism’s over-diagnosis—I have heard this case made by professionals particularly with reference to ADHD—suggests that the disorder really does not exist. I suppose Psychology Departments leave the teaching of logic to Philosophy Departments, but such thinking has serious ramifications for those who have a truly clinical case of whatever behavioral nexus we might consider.
I have gone through a couple of diagnoses as an adult—ADHD and manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder—that both illuminate and confuse the issue. The fact that doctors and other professionals find these disorders hard to diagnose, or may get stuck in a one-size-fits-all diagnostic rut or fad, does not eliminate the pain of those so diagnosed, the pain the meds can and often do ameliorate.

Often. Not always. I remember Prozac as though through a cloud of jello, and Depakote as a ruthless secretary re-filing the folders of my brain at painful will one weekend. Wellbutrin helped my depression but probably made me manic, or rather facilitated the emergence of a manic episode that cost me a career I had worked very hard to nurture. So, no, think not of all meds as benign for all patients. In the trial-and-error world of medicating, one claims universal efficacy for a drug at the risk of one’s reputation for sanity.

On the other hand, once having established that I do not tolerate lithium—it nearly killed me—my new combination of meds works quite well. I could have given up after lithium, but so could the mother of a child mentioned in the CNN segment, until she found the right professional with right answer for her child after he had received the supposed death sentence of severe autism. Instead she found a doctor who diagnosed the child as having ADHD, and successfully medicated him.
Health professionals forget at their peril—and their patients’—that they have lives in their hands, not classroom abstractions. And we forget that though diagnostic fads no doubt live longish and prosper, to dismiss the diagnosis as such misses the point: that some of us need some version of it at some time in our lives to flourish. Punish those who give out Ritalin as candy, but remember that the diagnosis of ADHD did not develop in a first-grade classroom, but in the practices of those who know something whereof they speak, and have the compassion to persist through their mistakes.

Chapel Hill, NC
December 5, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Clannishness of Sport

Human societies have long organized themselves into some variant of the clan. Medieval Genoa built itself around a series of alberghi, not inns as the word means now but urban redoubts for the major clans and their adherents. My own Liaosingh ancestors in Ireland fought as major vassals to the ruling lord against the British interlopers. You belong to a clan, you follow the policies and customs of the clan, or face disgrace.
Certain of our institutions suggest nostalgia for such belonging, which of course has its benefits. Sport is one of a long list of half-hearted attempts we make to recreate clannish safety. Half-hearted, because the allegiances run so shallow and the symbols seem so wan. Forget about the precision of heraldry, tracing the etiology of an intercourse of families. We have Carolina blue, Harvard (and Alabama) crimson, Stanford cardinal red. Notre Dame has two colors, Marian blue and Irish green; talk about imprecision.
The obviousness of the clan-sport affiliation in American society hits home hard at Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions play football on Thanksgiving Day itself, and countless arch-rivalries play out on collegiate fields over the following weekends, culminating in the Army-Navy game, the one that most resembles a true clan rivalry, heraldic meanings and all.
Plenty of writers have weighed in on this subject, but it took on particular significance for me in an incident that occurred yesterday. My dog Abby and I went to the library; well, Abby went as far as the parking lot. Said lot actually belongs to a shopping mall, the temporary home of the library during new construction. The same lot also serves as a “park and ride” location for football games at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yesterday they played their rival from the next town, the Duke Blue Devils (dark blue, as opposed to Carolina’s sky blue). Their fans occupied little patches of clannish turf as they celebrated the occasion in that most American of locations, the parking lot of a shopping mall. Shallowness incarnate.
If the Gospel according to Matthew has forty-two begats, intercollegiate football has, for all intents and purposes, one: tailgating. I commented to a Duke fan that doing it in a parking lot seemed so odd, what with the stadium a couple of miles away from us. As a child and then a graduate student, I tailgated at that very clannish rivalry, the Harvard-Yale game, in Yale Bowl’s sprawling practice field which doubles as a parking lot on game days, or used to, anyway. Chateaubriand, rack of lamb, pasta, burgers, you name it, washed down by anything from Heineken or Sierra Nevada to Chateau Lynch-Bages, a very good Medoc from the village of St.-Estephe, I think. Doing it at a shopping mall reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful line when he reveals the origins of his hero Earnest “in a handbag.”
One group from Duke took all this rather seriously, with pitch-the-hackey-sack games and, of course, a football tossed around with admittedly no little grace. Abby provided the liminal moment, the edge at which it all made sense. We had approached the Dukies from the other, open end of the grass island they had occupied, when Abby unceremoniously pooped. I scrambled to cover her leavings, to the relief of the rather caustic revelers. Little did they know that by the time I got back to the scene of Abby’s “crime” with some pine needles from the base of a tree, said scene eluded me. Abby had unwittingly passed judgment on the whole proceedings and I left that judgment undisturbed; who knows whether the Dukies did.
I write all this with a mild sneer, but nobody shot anybody at a football game yesterday, as happened at a Walmart the day before, retailers’ Black Friday, the day of profits. Nobody got trampled, as also happened on Black Friday and as has happened at European football (aka soccer in this country) matches. And yet a drum major at Florida A&M University died of hazing injuries this week, clannish behavior at its worst: you want to belong, let’s see if you can take the punishment belonging requires.
That death casts a pall on the whole pastime. Football games across the country should have had a moment of silence, but did not, at least not the three games of which I saw various parts, all played by predominantly white schools, unlike the predominantly black A&M. Football and its halftime ceremonies should not be worth dying for, and such deaths as occur bear acknowledgment, at the very least. Such acknowledgment, however, generally occurs only within the clan. Outsiders be damned, at least for sixty minutes of (American) football.

Chapel Hill, NC

Penn State

Only one reason occurs to me as valid for wading into the mess that a single sexual predator has wrought in a college town obsessed with its football team: a fresh perspective. Hear me out; I think I have one.
Thus far we can only write about those on whose behavior in the Sandusky affair we have some at least alleged facts. For better or worse, that pretty much eliminates the victims, about whom we know very little at this point. That leaves Sandusky himself, Paterno, the Athletic Director, the Vice-President for Business Affairs, and the President. We will return to this group shortly, but one remains, a graduate assistant at the time of his remarks to Paterno about what he saw in the shower. McQueary has become an assistant coach, and given paid administrative leave.
Most observers see the issue for all these men as one of not going to at least campus police if not the legal authorities with what they knew of Sandusky’s pederasty, however they obtained that knowledge. I spent twenty years in academia, and really want to know what this argument has to do with the way college administrators conduct business. Has nobody noticed that a V.P. for business got involved as the Athletic Director’s superior?
Colleges and universities like to police themselves, to control embarrassing information that might cost them contributions. Football generates enormous sums and inspires intense loyalty at Penn State. Under no circumstances would any administrator at any academic institution want to go to the police, though a minority would anyway, as the right thing to do. Did the others learn nothing from the Catholic church’s pederasty scandal? Obviously not, at least at Penn State.
This case has complexities nobody has yet fully comprehended, but one individual clearly deserves to have his name cleared. Who on earth can reasonably expect a graduate assistant to go over the head of his boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and approach the police? To think so flies in the face of collegiate hierarchies. He did his duty by telling Paterno, who did his by telling the A.D., at which point the buck gets harder to pass, but surely he or the V.P. should have gone to the police.
The fact that they did not condemns both them and the notion of separation of academia and state that the academy wants desperately to preserve. I still do not know if Paterno deserved getting the sack. The three above him in the pecking order surely did.

Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011

Another Hospital Story...

… but not mine. The stories of this week—the second of the Herman Cain sexual harassment/assault saga, the first of the child rape tragedy at Penn State, and more heroically that of Veterans’ (or Armistice) Day—have overwhelmed the emotions of many. The Cain story has strengthened paranoia on both sides of split allegiances; the Penn State tragedy has produced as many allegiances as players, excepting any sympathy for the alleged perpetrator. Only the stories of vets seem to offer any reinforcement to our sense of humanity.
Not all vets’ stories end happily, obviously, but enough end with some reason for inspiration that they remain compelling in the telling and retelling, and particularly in the hearing. Perhaps some seek to escape the horror of war, or to overcome or even whitewash it. I suppose in a sense mine does all three, particularly because of a central element of it: my father never made it any further than Camp Croft, South Carolina, and a surgeon’s scalpel in Atlanta. My story also differs from most in that although my father plays the central role, a doctor played the role of hero.
My story takes place during World War II, at least the crux of it does, but involves two men who never fought a lick. The first of the dramatis personae, Russ Lynch, my father, played multiple sports in high school, a year of prep school, and college: football in the fall through his freshman year at Boston University (B.U.) after not making the team at Bowdoin College, hockey most winters except that freshman year at B.U., and baseball in the spring. Not only did those sports shape his life, they—at least football—may have delayed his death.
His freshman year at B.U. Dad, who played end in a two-way scheme tore the cartilage in his knee. The coach, thinking to do him a favor, brought the 160-pound convalescent the assignments for guard for the next fall. My father, his scholarship on the line, told the coach to get lost, rather less politely. Word reached the hockey coach, who saved his career by offering him the insane choice of playing hockey beginning his sophomore year. He took it, lame knee and all. He played defense for a year, then his natural position of center his last two years, captaining the squad as a senior.
I loved all his hockey stories as a kid, though he always left out the part about not making the football team at Bowdoin, whose campus and libraries I came to know many years later. That failure shamed him. Another did not: his failure to fight fascism in Europe or imperialism in the Pacific. In fact, he found it rather amusing, and a cause of gratitude.
My father turned thirty-one in early January of 1942, old for conscription into the military but not automatically exempt. Three separate doctors in three separate drafts found my father unfit because of his right knee, as well as his age. A fourth doctor in a fourth draft disagreed. The war bore on and the military needed men, period, fitness be damned.
En route to boot camp in South Carolina my father received his assignment as second man on a bazooka in heavy infantry. Perfect for a guy with a bum knee.
It gets worse. On the first day at Camp Croft, Dad had to climb and then jump off a twenty-foot wall on an obstacle. He warned his sergeant that his knee would not stand the fall. The sergeant took him for a slacker. He climbed and jumped, and his knee gave out so excruciatingly that when the sergeant tried to get him up with a swift kick Dad convinced the man he would risk his life if that boot touched my father. The sergeant got the point, finally.
The Army then did something remarkable. Instead of shipping Dad home, they hospitalized him. An orthopaedic surgeon looked at him. The doctor had developed a series of operations to reconstruct knees injured like my Dad’s. He offered my father six months in the hospital on the Army in Atlanta. My father became a guinea pig, and the surgeon improved my father’s quality of life immeasurably. I often thought of that story while watching my parents dance beautifully at our favorite restaurant on summer vacation.
So, yes, I grieve for the fallen, the amputated, the post-traumatic stressed, and weep with joy at those who return at least physically whole to spouse and kids and parents and siblings. I always used to think Dad cheated his way out of the war somehow, thus cheating me out of war stories to relish as another episode in my private cult of hero-worship. In reality, of course, that idiot drill sergeant and that inventive orthopod prevented my father—and possibly me—from being cheated out of a life.

Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Civility, Again

Civility, Again
This blog has never served as a media review, nor will it so serve now. Read: but coming. The but: a point made almost longingly and certainly with an impatience bordering on indignance last evening on CNN’s John King USA. This writer missed part of the segment, but found the gist of it clear. A congresswoman from New York, a Democrat, has decided to found a new caucus, one based on the notion of bipartisan civility revolving around a simple social act: sitting down over a beer or whatever and talking.
They used to do that easily and regularly in Washington. As the congresswoman said, such interaction occurred after legislative hours and with no agenda other than sociability. The habit reflected a politics of constructive disagreement. We have descended into a politics of hate. As the Democratic political consultant Conrad Belcher pointed out, somebody elects these screaming memies—i.e., we live in a culture of hatred—but that seems only partly the point and merely states the obvious, however unfortunately. If Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Illinois and a Tea Party darling) could discover common personal ground with, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont, and an avowed socialist), perhaps he would stop whining about socialist plots to take over the government and start acting like an adult.
My first experience of Washington came as an only slightly stealthy Democrat on a Republican internship designed to introduce high school students to the workings of the Hill. True, we met with nothing but Republican Congressmen and Senators, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), a precursor of the Tea Party. And yet they all, Goldwater included, made it clear that they took for granted the necessity of working respectfully with the opposition. And they all had plans for a dinner party at least one evening that week at which they would have a Democrat within conversational distance. They took civility as part of the legislative landscape.
I came away from that week deeply impressed. We spent some time as a group in the office of a Rep. McCorkle (R-Nebraska), a friend of Rep. Stuart McKinney (R-Connecticut), the latter a beloved and widely respected moderate lawmaker when such a one could buck his leadership and not have to run for political cover. We then had a free afternoon, and I took up a staffer in McCorkle’s office on her invitation to come back for a while.
In the middle of my licking envelopes to send to constituents in Lincoln, the staffer interrupted me. The congressman wanted to meet me. This extremely nice man encouraged me to work as a volunteer for his Democratic colleague, Rep. William R. Cotter (D-Connecticut) who represented my district, or rather my parents’ since my first vote would not come till the following year. No irony in the suggestion, just generous collegiality. I wonder how many such interactions occur now in such a tone.
The media alternately marveled and caviled at the banality of the President’s having Skip Gates and a Cambridge policeman to the South Lawn of the White House for beers to soothe a notable case of incivility, by both Gates and the cop. The congresswoman from New York clearly sees past the banality of such gestures. Indeed. They allow us to live with each other. And that grace seems notably lacking at the moment.
Chapel Hill, NC
October 26, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Moammar Gaddafi, apparently, has died. The dictator is dead; long live the National Transitional Council and whatever follows it. How this news will resonate in Damascus and Sana’a one can only guess. One suspects, at any event, that the picture of a wounded or killed Gaddafi will acquire iconic status, unless its gruesomeness reminds too many people on all sides of the gruesomeness all around them in their streets and bazaars as the Arab Spring extends past summer into fall.
Before we get too far ahead of the facts on the ground—as I write CNN continues to exhibit caution about the reports of Gaddafi’s demise—we might think about how we got here. It appears, for example, that a NATO sortie may have fired missiles that hit Gaddafi’s convoy as it escaped the impending fall of his hometown, Sirte. This raises rather poignantly a couple of questions.
I have defended President Obama’s much maligned leadership style on this blog, and the fall of Gaddafi presents more evidence in its favor. When the NATO mission took shape, with us briefly in the lead and then in support over the not very long haul, the arrangement became the target of criticism from the right in the United States. Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain, in particular, characterized the plan as ineffective. One will find it interesting to see how they eat this particular crow.
However Graham and McCain preserve their integrity or not, their opposition to the NATO mission issues from a number of perspectives, not least the American exceptionalist position that we lead everything. Obama, instead, believes in partnership when appropriate, a belief based on a realistic assessment of American power and responsibilities. The Graham-McCain complaints, however, also speak to another oft-observed characteristic of our society: a lack of patience. Given a chance, Obama’s NATO strategy, run by an American admiral, did precisely what he said it would do, as CNN’s reporters have noted this morning. Given a chance.
We shock easily in part because we believe in instant truths, only to see them unravel over time. Steve Jobs founded Apple, then left in a conflict with the corporate style of its one-time partner AOL. Apple tanked. When Jobs returned to a basket-case version of his company noone gave him a chance to turn it around. Noone had the patience, in other words, to give him a chance. Shortly before his death Apple had a moment as the largest corporation in the United States.
What we think we know evolves over time. The competition in the media, one of our principal sources of information, to provide information instantly, serves us in the moment but does us a disservice over time. We cannot know everything at once, not even whether a new military strategy will work, or maybe particularly a military strategy.
Obama stands for a kind of politics of patience. This drives those who live by media-time and speak in sound-bytes crazy, and engenders all sorts of phony charges of weakness and ineptitude. In fact we have a very canny leader, if only we would let ourselves see patience as a virtue in a president. After all, how many Republicans considered FDR an idiot on December 6, 1941?
Obama has brought us a vision of the president as a patient philosopher-king, his recent spate of worried campaigning notwithstanding. I almost wish he would fall back on his oft-repeated willingness to serve a single term, a declaration we have not heard from him in some time. That way, if he must leave office—and I obviously belong to the “say it ain’t so” faction on this—he can do so with the consistency of one who valued more than political success.
PS—McCain exceeded even my low opinion of him.

Chapel Hill, NC
October 2, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Doctors: who needs them? Duh, we all do. Even Steve Jobs did, after a futile attempt to avoid them, at least allopaths, the "conventional" ones. Like Melville's Bartleby, we "would prefer not to," in the same way we would prefer, say, never to get sick. As Jobs himself said, we "want to go to heaven without having to die," the way we try to avoid more trivial inconveniences in life. Heavy, large, slow computers, for instance.

Jobs learned; I have learned, though not through mortal combat as he did. A medication became toxic and decided to attack my brain, kidneys, major muscle groups and other innocent victims like my sense of balance and ability to speak clearly. A medication, mind you, something devised to help those of us suffering from a mental illness, manic depression. Of course, I helped by rebelling against lithium's side-effects and getting off it with inappropriate suddenness. Two weeks of hell followed, then two weeks in the hospital, and now recuperation.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in my adopted hometown, has built an enormous and interconnected complex of hospitals, in which I spent time shuttled among at least three. From one room, my favorite, I had a view that suggested a castle keep standing watch over a magnificent parade of clouds, disconnected from any terrestrial reference. I floated--when I managed not to fall off a chair and raise the ire of my nursing staff and everybody else who watched it all on a patient surveillance camera feed--in what I have heard described by New Yorkers as "the best place in America to get sick."

I cannot claim a fortune comparable to Job'; I have no money at all. UNCH's staff knew this. In fact, a financial aid officer started working with me during my stay and continues to do so. This serves their interest, of course, but it also serves mine in that she has introduced me to sources of help of which I had known nothing.

A university town such as Chapel Hill--a great university town, and I did not go to school here--attracts smart and gifted people, and more than my share of them cared and still care for me as both an in- and out-patient. What did I do to deserve this? Nothing more than something very stupid. Think if I lived in the boonies somewhere, or in an impoverished country. The next time you want to challenge traditional medicine--and I had my moments even in this hospitalization--remember the graces of my care by e.m.t's and nurses and doctors and physical therapists mostly there for the right reasons, and my outcome, walking with trekking poles, but walking, unlike when I entered in an ambulance. Steve Jobs died in the hands of Western medicine, but he lived unexpected years in that same care.

Chapel Hill
October 6, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

hard truths

We hear a lot about the dynamics of race in our politics, particularly presidential politics. President Obama has, of course, served as a lightning rod for the attitudes race surfaces, but to the surprise and dismay of some, he does not go out of his way to enter this domain. We so easily think of him as black, and forget that he is half-white. And we forget that which “we” regards his race profoundly colors the way “we” see him and others. A case in point: the Congressional Black Caucus, both their members and their recent conference at which Obama spoke so forcefully and, to the private consternation of some attendees, challengingly. They understandably show great pride in having as president an African-American, whom they choose to see as one of them, and therefore theirs in some unique way the rest of us do not, cannot share. To their chagrin, the President does not share their view. He has more than one foot in their end of the pool, for sure, and when he speaks to them his cadence, his diction, his rhetoric, even his pitch lilt slightly toward the speech of southern black migrants to Chicago, with echoes of Dr. King. He speaks this way to one special constituency with which he shares much, but not everything, and to whom he likewise owes much—but again, not everything. We have not ended racism in the United States, but one begins to see a shift in how it plays out in our lives. Blacks no longer form the largest minority; Latinos have surpassed them. Herman Cain speaks eloquently to the fact that the black experience has ceased its more apparent than real one-time univocality, like him or not. Candidates such as Obama or North Carolina State Senator Ty Herrell insist that they represent all their constituents equally, not just those with whom they share—or not—a sub-culture and skin tone.
The assimilationist tendency of politicians such as Obama has one interesting side-effect that particularly irks the members of the Black Caucus. They have lost some of their sense of specialness, of uniqueness and yes, of entitlement, none of which they feel prepared to relinquish, and with some very good reasons. And yet they sometimes seem blind to others and their very good reasons for attention. Some, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), seem unaware or unconcerned that they come across as spoiled children in complaining that the President pays them too little heed. They do not have a special claim on him, but the same claim we all have, however unique both his role and their vindication in history: the claim to his very divided attention as chief executive to our national and personal well-being and freedom. Have we perfected the melting-pot theory of American cultural absorption? Of course not. Have we conquered racism? Hell, no. We have, however, approached a point where a black politician can eschew political blackness. Those of another generation and more left-leaning views—a Waters or a Cornel West—find this repugnant, but perhaps it has become almost safe to name such parochialism while remaining sympathetic to the particulars of its grievances. Or if not safe, then perhaps necessary.

Chapel Hill, NC
September 25, 2001

Sunday, September 25, 2011

six bleak months later

One cannot cover in one blog post everything important that happened during a six-month hiatus brought on in part by unemployment and illness, both of which redirect energies in predictable and unpredictable ways; other kinds of writing, for instance. Such an attempt at comprehensiveness would read like a premature end-of-year overview.
One can, however, do the political-energy equivalent of an MRI and ask, bluntly, what gives. Parochialism hardly counts as a neophyte in politics, foreign and domestic, but it seems to have taken anabolic steroids of late, and at overdose levels.
How else to explain the isolationism of the Tea Party and its courting nabobs of Republican intestinal bankruptcy, from Ron Paul to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in between them? The nauseating rhetoric of American exceptionalism aside, we have behaved most exceptionally in civil rights and foreign leadership, screwups galore notwithstanding. If inevitable failure in the primaries shuts up Mr.Paul, so much the better for all of us.
The Tea Party obsession with eliminating budget deficits, in all its pathological ugliness, occupies the other side of the same coin. Whoever cares more about budgets than FEMA’s responsibilities, eliminating or radically overhauling entitlement programs—and I mean radical with a capital R for Republican right wing—more than creating jobs via infrastructure repair, and so forth, needs to have their humanity examined. That means Messrs. McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, Ryan, Walsh, and a helluva lot of company. We may say of them that some seem decent as people; as politicians, they have become something else.
The flavor of this past week, of course, went on display at the U.N. in a particularly unseemly display of chicanery. Right now I find it very difficult to sympathize with either side in the Palestine issue. Netanyahu ranks as the villain in the piece, as he should for sheer intransigence. His minions such as Mr. Ayallon match him for the credulity of their defense of indefensible Israeli positions on sttlements, and on borders always assumed but never spoken till Obama did the unthinkable and named them: 1967 or bust.
The Palestinians, however, blew another chance—one loses count of these blunders over time—to look like the adults in the room. Dr. Aswari and others on the Palestinian side do not seem to realize that their real complaints sound more like petulance the more we hear them repeated. One feels like a fan of Mohammad Ali booing his rope-a-dope tactics against Frazier et al. in the ‘70s. Arafat left them a legacy of encroaching irrelevance in his inability to understand the compromises required in diplomacy, a brown paper bag of futility out of which the Palestinians now seem frantic to punch themselves when only talking will work.
We even need to watch the Arab Spring, that it not devolve into less of a movement and more of a regionalized morass. Egypt wobbles, Libya has yet to walk, and we hear little from Tunisia, though that may betoken real progress. Syria bleeds, Yemen lines up for civil war, Bahrain suffocates, Jordan prevaricates, Turkey expectorates, and spring turns into fall and the heralds of winter. Parochialism in regional form, in other words.
A bleak assessment of our moment? Maybe. Because we have heroes, too, from the three hikers recently released by Teheran to the kids of Tahrir Square to the TNC guerillas of Libya to the martyrs of Syria to too many others to count. If governments cannot or will not do the right thing, individuals have to do it. Amazingly, they do. Witness CNN’s heroes. We abdicate, though, if we let government off the hook of responsibility, comparisons to European state paternalism (I can only wish…) be damned.

Chapel Hill, NC
September 25, 2001