Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kennedy and National Sabotage

Back when I was taking care of indoor plants at the Michigan Union, on whose steps John F. Kennedy announced his proposal for a Peace Corps, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon. As soon as a plant under my care happened to reach a state of perfect form and size, it would somehow become a target. It would be stolen, or blundered into, or, if it was in the U-Club, where beer was served, it would be spontaneously chosen as a receptacle for the vomit of some student celebrating Michigan's victory in a big game. There seemed to be peril in perfection.

I think of those plants when contemplating Kennedy's demise.

JFK wasn't perfect, but he had a lot going for him and he was evolving in a good direction. He was, they say, the first president to call civil rights a moral issue.  He called people to a new era of public service. He had a combination similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt--privileged upbringing along with a prolonged personal struggle with pain and partial debility. Biographer James Tobin says Roosevelt's battle with polio, necessitating ongoing improvisation with remedies, gave him a confidence in his inner strength, a deeper compassion for others' suffering, and informed his non-ideological search for solutions to the Great Depression.

People see what they want to see in Kennedy. What I see in him, rightly or not, is what I want to see in the nation--a capacity to evolve, to learn from mistakes, to see reality without the filter of ideology, to take on tough challenges, to move from intolerance to compassion, from pettiness to magnanimity, and an understanding that self-realization and public service--the prosperity of the private and shared realms--are not at odds but closely linked.

The mourning of his death is heightened by an awareness that the nation has drifted away from these qualities. Themes I internalized while growing up in the afterglow of the World War II victory--the thrift my parents needed to survive the Great Depression, the courage, sacrifice and winning spirit celebrated in so many postwar movies--are sidelined in today's emphasis on consumerism, denial of grave threat, and indifference towards shared destiny. America's history since Kennedy is one of lessons unlearned-- the descent into Vietnam made all the worse by the subsequent descent into Iraq--of ideologies willfully disconnected from reality, and of passive collective surrender to the slow motion demolition that is climate change.

Military service, noble and mainstream in World War II, became something to avoid in the Vietnam War. Civilian public service, which in Kennedy's vision was a noble pursuit, became the shared sacrifice of 55 mph speed limits and lowered thermostats during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Not seeing any greatness or nobility in observing speed limits or wearing sweaters, people embraced Reagan's vision of national destiny as the maximization of self, at the expense of what is held in common. The appealing optimism of self-realization was shackled to an increasingly debilitating pessimism about our capacity to achieve anything together as a nation.

It's appealing to think that, if Kennedy had survived the bullets and the next election, the nation's trajectory would have been much different. Might a personal thawing between Kennedy and Khrushchev have led to a thawing of the Cold War? Might Kennedy's thinking have evolved quickly enough to realize the futility of involvement in Vietnam? Might the giving of oneself to a national cause, which made victory in World War II possible, have survived sufficiently to be mobilized in the fight to stop feeding climate change?

"Ask what you can do for your country". That most people aren't asking that question is the biggest void now. Those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II had no difficulty understanding that the nation's destiny depends on an individual's contribution to a shared project. Problems collectively created can only be collectively solved. Kennedy tried to sustain and recast that ethic for a new era. But now, public service has been enshrined as military service and the rescue work of what we call first responders, whose courage is in actuality the last line of defense against crises that no one acted earlier to avert. That enshrinement all too conveniently lets the rest of us off the hook. The individual's role became relegated, in George W. Bush's presidency, to shopping. When Barack Obama, in his first campaign for president, asked people ever so modestly to keep their tires inflated rather than extract more oil from our coastlines, he was ridiculed.

If the present were more illuminated, an unrealized presidency 50 years distant might seem a glimmer. It is the darkness that makes Kennedy's light burn so bright.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibuster Busters

As of yesterday, an overweening lust to filibust has finally been busted in the Senate, restoring some trust that majority rule can at last be reinstated as the norm in the highly strained democratic process. Though both parties have used the filibuster when in the Senate minority, the tradition has been severely abused in recent years, with filibusters becoming the norm rather than the exception.

According to Harry Reid, "In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration – during the last four and a half years."

Bringing an end to most filibusters can be seen as a rare imposition of consequence--you abuse it, you lose it--in a governing body badly in need of consequence for bad actors. The ubiquitous columnist David Brooks, at his usual spot on PBS's The News Hour, said that instead of consequence for bad actors, we should "try to get people to behave better." Columnists, of course, suffer no consequence for being wrong, nor do elected representatives, who successfully hide behind the "both sides are to blame" posture of the news media. There is no motivation to "behave better" when anyone who does so gets lumped into the "both sides are to blame" category regardless. The supposed public watchdogs, seeking to appear evenhanded, end up turning a blind eye to any imbalance in behavior.

Statistics like Reid's "168 filibusters" can be manipulated, but the news media, rather than hiding behind the false fairness of "both sides are to blame", needs to come up with some way to measure abuse, so that bad actors can be identified early on. Otherwise, as on a playground, the lack of early intervention leads to the need for more extreme action. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" and the kidnapping of good intentions

At the local movie theater, we were already in a weakened state before the main feature began. The previews hit us like ten minutes of shock and awe, as our bodies were bombarded with those low bass detonations that movie house sound systems deliver with merciless accuracy to the gut, while the most grotesque images of violence danced before us in a relentless march towards doom. The images are so rapid fire as to seem like they are streaming from the barrel of an assault weapon that should have been banned long ago. There was, at least, one oasis of love and happiness halfway through--laughter, familial joy. I clung to that moment of felicity like someone might cling to a streetlamp pole in a hurricane, only to find out that it was a preview for a remake of Rosemary's Baby. The ten seconds of happiness served no purpose other than to set up more blood and gore.

The logic of all the violence is to achieve within us a sense of thrill and danger while we risk nothing in our comfortable theater chairs beyond the loss of two hours' time. The movies' monstrous creatures bring civilization to the brink of ruin, vanquished only at the last possible moment by some individual bestowed with unusual powers and courage. The hero, though suffering countless blows, emerges like the audience unscathed, lending us a pleasing feeling of immortality.

Meanwhile, outside the theater, the real world is threatened not by rapacious invaders but by the relentless liberation of tiny, odorless, invisible, normally harmless carbon molecules that accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans in concentrations that ultimately alter the earth's destiny. All of this is done not out of malice, but as a side-effect of well-meaning people seeking happiness and economic security. The enormous momentum of the changes wrought by all this unintention allows for no last minute reprieve, insuring a trauma measured not in hours but centuries.

In other words, the story that works for cinema, that danger comes from outside, is powerful and malicious, and can be overcome by last minute action, leaves people unprepared for combating or even identifying the real threats to our world.

More reality-based was the feature film, "12 Years a Slave", about a free negro, Solomon Northup, who in 1842 is lured out of his prosperous life in New York state, then kidnapped and sold as a slave in Georgia. It's based on a true story, from a book by the same name. Turns out that kidnapping free blacks to be sold into slavery was a common practice, and as Northup is sold and resold, bouncing from one plantation to another, the atrocities perpetrated in the name of picking cotton become one insult and humiliation layered upon another. Slave families are torn apart, affection and violence are joined as one in the slavers' behavior, a slave's intelligence and learning must remain hidden in order to survive, while the slavers' ignorance and vengeful insecurities are on full display. Plantation owners cherry pick quotes from the bible to defend the indefensible.

Most memorable and effective were the long, unedited shots, as in an interrupted lynching, when the lynchers flee and the slave is left alone, gasping for breath with the noose still taut around his neck, standing on tiptoes in the mud. Not even fellow slaves dare to intervene. In that lingering scene, with no sound but his constricted breathing, it is the inaction that is most terrifying of all.

We emerged from the theater shaken; I was barely able to walk. It seemed false to speak. We would rise later from the depths of feeling, enough to talk about what we had seen. I used to be comforted by the thought that the nation has come a long way since that sordid era. How could society have condoned such cruelty for so long? There have been great strides, and yet the evidence mounts that though the injustice due to the color of one's skin has been reduced, another injustice is deepening according to the timing of one's birth. We have learned to treat one another better, but the unborn generations, with no vote and no legal recognition, are the ones getting dumped on.

What one becomes aware of in the movie's plantation scenes is the vast amount of physical work that needed to be done--picking cotton, harvesting timber, cutting sugar cane. Society's physical work is now largely done by machines, and though the machines are wonderful, the rapacious extractions of fuels from the earth, and the pouring of carbon into the atmosphere, are decidedly not. To power our present day economy, the scars on a slave's back have become the scars in nature--the mountains blown up to mine coal, the Canadian forests obliterated so oil can be extracted from the underlying tarsands. And the destabilization of the climate and the acidification of the oceans are as invisible and even more lasting than the emotional and cultural trauma to slaves--trauma that has been taking generations to heal. Violence and injustice, that in "12 Years a Slave" are in full view, are now obscured by time and distance, giving the illusion of progress.

Our predicament--the need to extract ourselves from a fossil fuel economy--is much like that of John Woolman, the 18th century New Jersey Quaker who worked much of his life to end slavery. From a website honoring his legacy:
"he provided an example of non-participation in slavery. John refused to write wills, bills of sale, or any other document that perpetuated slavery. He boycotted slave products, willing to appear foolish in the eyes of others. And he capitalized on every opportunity to explain why he did not use the cotton, silver, rum, sugar or dyed clothing that others found acceptable."
"12 Years a Slave" drives home how a slave-based economy warps not only the nature of the slave but the slave-owner as well. Even those up north were compromised to the extent they used the products of an unethical economy. How different is our situation, as we seek to reduce our carbon footprints by consuming less red meat, using fewer plastic bags, and driving more efficient cars? Though we are free, we are not free to live moral lives. Every aspect of our generosity to ourselves and others--the comfort of our homes and offices, the food we eat, the trips we take--is dependent on energy that feeds a climatic sabotage of the future. Though the distant consequence allows the illusion of an ethical society, our good intentions are constantly being kidnapped, to later be used against us.

Perhaps the cruelest moment in the film is when Northup is handed a whip and given little choice but to whip a fellow slave. Even as beneficiaries of the economy, we too have no practical choice but to contribute to a massive and irreparable harm. The chairs in the movie theater provided some small comfort, but walking out of the theater into the present day did not.