Saturday, September 12, 2009

9/11 Light Up the Night

Last evening I was privileged to speak at a September 11 event sponsored by American Muslim Voice. Our small band gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House and shared the Iftar -- breaking the Ramadan fast. Words from family members of 9-11 victims were a poignant reminder of the violence of that day which continues to take its toll in a war without end.
The local Fox affiliate did a pretty nice story on it, which you can see here.
Here are my brief remarks.
I bring you greetings from Christian Peace Witness, a ecumenical coalition of more than 25 peace fellowships in the United States. I am honored to be with you this evening to break fast, and to break barriers that have too long divided the children of God.
As Samina [executive director of American Muslim Voice] and I have spoken together over the past few days, our conversations always come back to that: the children of God, and, simply, the children.
There was a story in the Post today that focused on young people the paper called the ‘9-11 generation,’ those who were little boys and little girls on September 11, 2001.
I am the parent of such children. I think, in particular, about our middle child, who is now in high school. He was a second grader, seven years old. He was home that morning as we watched the Twin Towers fall, and it shook him to his core. I will never forget, one evening later that fall as I was tucking him into bed, he looked up at me and asked, "daddy, will things ever get back to normal?"
I answered him with fatherly reassurance that, yes, time would begin to heal the wounds we all felt, and that fearfulness would fade. But I thought to myself, "back to normal? I certainly hope not."
For if back to normal means returning to a status quo in which we are so divided among ourselves that the violence of 9-11, of London, Madrid, Mumbai, Baghdad and Kabul was inevitable, I want no part of normal. If back to normal means leaping from national tragedy directly into endless war, I want no part of normal. If back to normal means distortions of our faith traditions, mistrust between Christians and Muslims and Jews, and ethnic profiling by our national security apparatus, then I want no part of normal.
No, what I want for my children and for all children is something new in the world, something that I feel being born among us in gatherings such as this one when we sit down together and speak words of friendship and understanding, when we light up the night with peace.
This Sunday, in many churches, we will read these words from Christian scripture:
"From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh."
As we think back to 2001 and the years since, we know that many words have been spoken in anger and hate and misunderstanding about and among the children of God.
Let the words of our mouths be words full of compassion and of passion for building together a world in which breaking bread together is normal, in which loving one another is normal, in which justice and peace are normal, in which our words, ‘peace, salaam, shalom,’ ring from every church and mosque and synagogue.
Thank you. May peace be among us all. May we light this night, and all nights with the light of love.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

He Didn’t Say “You Lie.” He said, “You Fly.”

This is what happens when you take some Facebook back and forth between a dozen friends speculating on what prompted Joe Wilson’s shout out last night and then share that with an on-line community of 200,000. Jon Stewart might have responded, “No. You didn’t,” and we agree. He could not have gone there. Unless …
The Democrats are already raising so much money in response to Joe Wilson's shout-out that I'm beginning to think they paid him to do it.
Maybe it was a triple dog dare.
I guess I was delusional thinking that Obama would be able to bring everyone together. It just seems to be getting worse. They are so irrational. It is like dealing with a bunch of pre-schoolers with Tourettes and anger management issues.
Paula Poundstone said that he wasn't yelling at Obama; he just dropped his hot dog.
I left local politics on account of all of the hot dog dropping.
Does anybody speak Chinese? Maybe he was shouting, "Yu Li!" Or "Yoo lai!?"
I think it was one of those football cheers, like "booyah!" because he thought Obama had just scored a touchdown! Then he realized that it was a speech and not a football game and felt foolish.
Or maybe he said "I want pie!"
Or, "Cute tie."
Did he say “Meyer”? I think that's it. He was talking on the phone to his one token Jewish friend.
I think he was telling Obama that he was cool. I think he really said, "You're fly." Of course, he was on his Blackberry. Maybe he'd been looking for a recipe and finally found it and yelled "Fruit pie!" But I don't think it was "Too shy," because that wouldn't have made sense, either way. Unless, as I said originally, he has Tourette's.
He could have been giving a shout out to Joe - "Yo Bi."
Ok, I think I got it now. He was pre-leaking his illicit love affair with person he knows now is his soul mate and that person's name is...Yu Lai!
Or maybe "You're bi." He might have thought that was more polite than "you're gay."
It's half as offensive
Great. Now hipsters will, with their love of irony, start using that to refer to things that aren't cool but are. Hipsters do it.... ironically.
I don't think so -- Yelling "You're X" at Obama is a compliment to members of group "X". It's not offensive at all.
Gee, do you think we should... apologize to Mr. Wilson?
You know ... I really do.
But, still...we may have besmirched his character as a statesman. A simple apology might not go far enough to assuage the damage...
Well, if we've besmirched it, we'll just have to smirch it.
I know- we name the public option that we pass after him: The Joseph Wilson Public Insurance Plan!
Maybe he said: "Apple, peaches, Pumpkin Pie/Who's not ready Holler "Aye!
Twenty nickels makes a dollar......I didn't hear anyone holler!
20 nickels do NOT make a dollar. You forgot about inflation. Oh, wait. Never mind.
"Mai Tai?" (with a little pink umbrella)
Or, he looked into his future and said, "Oh, bye"
Upon further review it has to be this one-you nailed it
Heh. Like in '68 when Daley claimed he was yelling "you faker" instead of "you fucker
Maybe he just rented an apartment in "Mumbai"; he had just closed the deal on his Blackberry
"I miss the good ole' days workin' in Dixie with Strom Thurmond...I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!!!" Followed by bursting into tears.
I checked out the video.... and did find a "cute tie," and that, as usual, Pres was quite fly. C.W., your blog today is so sly, and your choice of words, quite wry.
Can't take much credit here ... this really did come from an all day back and forth on Facebook. It was a community effort. Hm, communal ... that's bad, right? I suppose, because my kid was in the seats when Obama spoke this week, it's rubbed off and we're all socialists
Communal, socialist? (I can't wait to register as a Socialist as the next listed party on the ballot! I hope Pres joins me, after all, isn't he one, also?
Smashing your comment, it's fly!
"I'll Try." He really wanted to support the Pres
He could give it a try like that doofus in San Diego caught bragging about banging two lobbyists on an open mic. He tried to argue he was just a lying blowhard.
This is one of their preeminent strategies; someone has to come up with standard retort lines for the Democrats that they can use rather than address this nonsense with new information each time. They need one or two sentences that they should rotely engage whenever this anti-american hatred shit comes out of the Rethug nuts.
Has this been a fun day or what?
Laughing is so much healthier than crying!
“U Li:” It's the name of his mistress, who coincidentally is a lobbyist for the Chinese government. He was napping and dreamt of her.
Related to U Thant?She sleeps with a Republican. So she is related to U Cant.
“Yu Lai:” Mandarin for 'I am a southern cracker asshat and this boy ain't going to tell me what to do.'
Or perhaps a Shakespearean "I die!"
What are you? Some kind of Wise Guy?
I try.
Screw it, I need a Mai Tai.
“Moon Pie!”
"You lie" is a funny thing to say. I don't think it's idiomatic English. I'd say, "You're lying," or, "You're a liar." You could say, "You lie all the time," but, without some kind of adverbial modifier, just "You lie" is very strange English.
Is Joe Wilson a secret foreigner?
Wait a minute. I dunno...."you lie" sounds right to me. Though I think it is meant to describe a quality of Obama rather than the current state.
He lies.
Conjugating? In public?
John McWhorter points out in one of his books how strange such a use of the simple present is in English (as opposed to other languages like French or German).
Oohhh...are you throwing down? ;)
Neurolinguist Steven Pinker suggests that language is an inherent instinct, so there is no such thing as poor grammar if it's understood by the listener...
Your move...
Ahh...I do love a good grammarthon. We're so deliciously geeky.
Maybe we can lure George Lakoff into this one
I can certainly understand poor English spoken by non-native speakers a lot of the time. "You lie" strikes me as similar.
“July!” He was being patriotic.
You're all wrong. Mr. Wilson is a big time gamer. It's so easy to forget you're not alone: Yulai
I noticed that some of the services on Yulai are cloning and repair. Hmmm...
LOL, maybe he has Tourette syndrome and could benefit from the health care plan after all... the "resident conservative" in my office was giving his account of what had happened to another co-worker, and had said, "It was an accident. He was so tired of all the lies, that he just couldn't help himself and had to blurt out."
My bad. Maybe we Dems should apologize to him.
I think it was "I'm not a guy”
No, he was just inviting the Prez for a beer... saying 'I'll Buy"
About childishness: It is like dealing with a bunch of pre-schoolers with Tourettes and anger management issues.
So true. I'm trying to understand Michael Steele and Lindsay Graham today, those poor disappointed boys because they really know deep down that Barack can sink a basketball on the playground while they watch from the Inadequacy Club sidelines. I feel sorry for them. Their pointy fingers must be getting sore from all the blaming. Wonder if they even really buy that pucky they're selling. Or if they ever look honestly at themselves in the mirror.
Stay calm, cool, collected.
Nah he said “hi!” He waz just being friendly!
“July!” He thought someone was asking when he was born.
He was thinking about war crimes and shouted "My Lai"
No wonder the GOP has made him apologize.
Y'all got it all wrong... He said... this
It's hard to understand Southern out of context.
Thanks to all those who gave so much for so little.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Day After

Day two of school and no Obama. So, my kid comes home from school with a motorcycle helmet under one are and a tattoo on the other. OK, he doesn't really have a tattoo and the helmet is because I took him to school this morning on my scooter, but still, there's got to be some let down the day after you kick off the new year with the president in the house.
I suppose that is one of the drawbacks of charismatic leadership in any field. What do you do when the leader is gone?
It seems like an ironclad rule of human behavior to create an institution to sustain the energy, and it seems like an equally ironclad rule of organizational behavior that the institution fails. Perhaps that is too blunt. Perhaps it would be more polite, and even more accurate, to say that institutions cannot maintain the energy of a charismatic leader and tend to drift away from the leader's vision.
After Obama went back to his day job, there are schools left to carry on the work of education. After Henry Ford died, there was a car company left. After Thomas Edison shuffled off this electrical coil we got power companies. After a charismatic preacher moves on, there is the church.
After the leader leaves, all of the petty concerns that are forgotten in the powerful presence of an Obama or Ford or Edison rise back up the agenda.
So yesterday our kids were challenged to think about what great achievements they might offer to the world. And today they bring home math packets.
Scaling the heights always sounds better in soaring oratory than it feels in every day life. As Edison said, genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration.
Time to sweat, kids.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Greatest Do Your Homework Speech Ever

I watched President Obama’s address to the nation’s students, and I have two overwhelming responses:
First, did you see that incredibly cute curly headed boy in the flannel shirt about six rows up? No? Well, that was my son! When he got home this afternoon he said simply, “that was the greatest ‘do your homework’ speech ever.” He added, “the man just oozes charisma; you can smell it!”
Second, and way down the list in importance compared to number one, what the hell was the fuss about that speech?!? To begin with, President Obama did not say anything to students that most parents wouldn’t say to their children as school approaches. Most of us don’t put it quite so eloquently or powerfully, as my son helpfully reminded us. Still, most of us say the same thing. Work hard. Study. Participate. Try things, and if you fail, learn from the failure and keep on trying. The country is counting on you. OK, well, that last part smacks of socialism.
But seriously, what was that all about?
Given that everyone knew from the moment this speech was announced that the president would give an inspirational talk on achievement, how does one explain the opposition?
My son said this was the only time he’s ever been in an assembly of the entire school where it was completely silent. “You could hear a pin drop during the speech.” On the other hand, he said it was painfully loud when the president walked into the gym. “It was like a rock show,” he said. You can get more of sense of that excitement from the brief clip from his video than was apparent on C-SPAN.
Young people enthralled by a political leader who campaigned on the theme of change? Well, it’s no wonder the opposition wants to keep him as far away from their children as possible. Those enriched by the status quo certainly fear a charismatic leader promising change. It matters not how well or poorly he may be doing at the moment in delivering on the promise, the promise itself is threatening.
When you tell an incredibly diverse student body – and there are few more diverse than Wakefield’s – that they can accomplish great things even if they don’t have the most beautiful facilities and all the latest technologies at their fingertips, you also undermine the notion that only those to the manor born can lead the nation. Those in the manors always fear the rabble.
Of course, that does not explain all of the opposition. Some of it, as with opposition to anything President Obama does, is plain, old-fashioned racism. For them, the appearance at a school such as Wakefield had to be particularly galling. An African-American president introduced by an African-American senior class president of a school led by a strong African-American woman – well, what is this world coming to. Wakefield looks like what America, at our best, looks like, and it works incredibly well.
For this particular speech, some of the opposition reflects the deep-seated anti-intellectual strain of American culture. And some of it is just rudeness. After all, when the President of the United States speaks to school children, in person or on line, you give respect.
When our first child was born I worked for the Council of State Governments in a position that put me in contact with scores of state lawmakers of both parties. One thoughtful and well-connected Republican, unbeknownst to me, had President George H.W. Bush send our newborn son a letter welcoming him into the world and encouraging him to live and life of service. Neither my wife nor I ever voted for President Bush, and were appalled by many of his policies including leading us into a war that paused (it still hasn’t ended) only days before our son was born. Did we send the letter back? Of course not. It remains one of the prized items in the baby book. When the president says, “welcome to the world,” you say, “wow; thanks for noticing.”
When the president says, “do your homework,” you say, “wow; thanks for noticing.”
In any case, that is pretty much what our second son said after his presidential moment this afternoon.
PS: Martin did his homework!

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Unspeakable

Last Saturday I sat on the side of Memorial Bridge and watched the funeral procession for Senator Kennedy as it made the turn around the Lincoln Memorial and headed up the hillside into Arlington National Cemetery.
I got to the bridge about 25 minutes before the procession was supposed to pass, or two hours before it actually went by. Fortunately, it was a beautiful late summer evening and I brought a book.
Coincidentally, the book was JFK and the Unspeakable, James Douglas’s take on President Kennedy’s assassination. Douglas painstakingly lays out the case for an intricate CIA conspiracy to kill the president because he was breaking faith with the Cold War.
Were I prone to believe in vast conspiracies I might believe this book, but one of the side benefits of living in Metro DC is understanding what a small, company town this really is. Those people who work “for the government” are our neighbors. Indeed, according to one of my neighbors who has lived right down the street from our house for more than 50 years, at least three former neighbors worked for the agency. One of the most infamous of CIA turncoat spies passed secrets at what is now our neighborhood 7-11. And all the neighbors know this stuff. Neighbors talk.
It is a theological truth that it is not good for human beings to be alone. We crave each others’ company because we want to share our stories and be heard. Secrets get told, witness the current fallout from CIA torture cases of the past eight years. I’m guessing that stuff was not supposed to get out.
Now Douglas spins a wonderfully rich and richly documented tale, but there are just too many ordinary human beings involved in it for me to believe that such a thing could happen and remain secret for 50 years.
I think Ted Kennedy’s famous eulogy of his brother, Robert, holds a clue to our tendency to cling to conspiracies. He said then, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
We tend to idealize and enlarge those we want to see as heroic, and we tend also to enlarge their deaths. The sad, lonely and confused figure of an Oswald or Sirhan seem still somehow simply too small to sweep the Kennedy brothers off the stage of history. We want a vast conspiracy.
The end of Ted Kennedy’s words about Robert hold a final clue, to use, again, the language of conspiracy.
“Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."
Although I agree that few of us dream compelling dreams of a future otherwise, I don’t think either of the Kennedys was right about the first part. Most of us see things as we wish to see them whether or not that is how things actually are. For to do so is to come face to face with how things actually are, and to be confronted with our own complicity in constructing that reality.
So it’s not the CIA conspiracy story that I found compelling in JFK and the Unspeakable. It’s the unspeakable itself, and our participation in it. If there was a vast conspiracy to kill Kennedy, it was far more vast than Douglas imagines. In encompasses all of us.
Douglas’ title comes from Thomas Merton’s Cold War reflections on the unspeakable. Douglas quotes Merton saying, “One of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable.”
As Merton suggests, what was and remains unspoken is our collective ability to live with the reality of nuclear weapons and treat the situation as so normal, now, that we rarely give it any thought at all. The evil that Paul named as powers and principalities in the present darkness, Merton called unspeakable because to name it aloud would be to confess our own complicity in it. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are most often mentioned as part of the specter of terrorists and nuclear terrorism. While that is certainly a clear and present danger toward which we are properly directing some of our vast military/intelligence resources, the fact remains that the United States is the only entity that has ever used weapons of mass destruction. Our six decades of silence about that self-evident truth indicates just how unspeakable these weapons truly are. To speak of that, in more than passing terms that praise the act as the end of a terrible war, would be to call into question our own too easy participation in holocausts.
Did the CIA kill Kennedy? I doubt it. Was Oswald a pawn in a vast conspiracy? Absolutely. He was a pawn in our own vast conspiracy of empire and of silence. Was Kennedy breaking that silence by calling deeply into question the military-industrial complex and the foundational national myth of redemptive violence? Again, I doubt it. He was a committed Cold Warrior. Had he lived, perhaps he would have withdrawn Americans troops before the full-scale disaster of Vietnam. That we will never know. Perhaps he would have opened relations with Cuba and pursued détente with the Soviet Union as well. Again, we will never know.
But what we do know is that even now, a half century on, we are still bound by the unspeakable. Perhaps that is why we reach out to conspiracy theories. They allow us to ignore our own participation in the violence that marks our age.
Though Ted Kennedy was certainly a flawed and broken human being, his consistent opposition to American military misadventures over the last 30 years suggests that he, too, dreamed things that have not come to pass and dared to name, from time to time, that which remains unspeakable.