Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Case You Missed It....

In case you missed it, here's an op-ed of mine that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece with which my article was paired--about the Republican Party's habit of turning a blind eye to its own racism--is worth a look too.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing--as well as mud-slinging--following the election of the first Republican senator from Massachusetts in nearly 40 years and the Democrats' consequent loss of the supermajority they briefly enjoyed in the Senate. But personally, I'm not surprised by the Democrats' meteoric fall from grace. And maybe, instead of wringing our hands, we the people should be wringing their necks.

I'm an independent, but like many progressives I voted for the Democrats--including Barack Obama--in the 2008 election because I hoped they'd keep their promises concerning the issues that matter to me most: global warming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the policies of torture and detention pursued by the previous administration, the lack of universal health care, the profligacy and criminality of the financial industry, the corruption of Washington politics, the devastating effects of the recession. But with a year in office, most of it spent with their vaunted supermajority in place, what have they done?

They've derailed international climate-change negotiations by failing to get climate legislation off the ground. They've escalated one war and extended the other. They've kept in place effectively the same wartime policies of their predecessors. They've watered down the health care bill to the point of meaninglessness and still failed to see it through. They've made feeble stabs at corralling the most egregious sins of Wall Street (CEO perks, credit card rate hikes) while utterly failing to address the system's fundamental inequities. They've done nothing about the lobbyists who swarm around them--indeed, it's their incestuous dependence on those money-peddlers that has squelched the other reform legislation I hoped to see. In order to achieve all of this nothing, they've thrown around so much cash (but none of it to you and me) you'd think they were on a year-long holiday shopping spree. And still the economy is reeling.

One might expect such monumental failures to produce not excuses and accusations but soul-searching. If, that is, the Democratic Party still had a soul left to search.

The Massachusetts election, in short, has only driven home what was already painfully evident from the past year: The Democrats are a failed party in every conceivable way. They no longer stand for anything coherent or meaningful, they no longer feel any responsibility to the people they serve, and they are no longer capable of achieving anything of consequence no matter how many votes or offices they hold. A party so ideologically, morally and politically bankrupt has no business existing.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama asserted that "it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength." I couldn't agree more. But I no longer believe the Democratic Party has a part to play in creating such a government.

Historically, political parties arise to meet a great but unfulfilled need: The Democrats emerged in the 18th century as the "party of the common man," the Republicans in the 19th to oppose the extension of slavery. I don't know what new party will rise from the ruins of the Democrats. All I know is it can't rise too soon.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

King's True Dream

In the week following Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I've made it a habit to introduce my students to a speech of his that practically no one knows about, a speech that's been almost entirely eclipsed by "I Have a Dream." Not that I have a problem with the latter speech, of course. But I feel that the obsessive focus on this speech does a disservice to King's legacy, a legacy that was far more radical than his words at the Lincoln Memorial suggest. "I Have a Dream" is a speech that, these days at least, it's hard to disagree with; who but hardcore racists could object to King's vision of interracial harmony? In that respect, the endless replaying of the "Dream" speech serves a stultifying rather than a galvanizing function in our current historical context; the speech allows us, especially with a black man in the White House, to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come, rather than to ask ourselves how far we still have to go.

And of course, we still do have a ways to go. From New Orleans to Haiti, we still live in a world of radical inequality grounded to a great extent in skin color; we still have color-coded systems of education, justice, economics, employment, residence, health, environment, and all the rest. We have a black president, yes, but also a black record that has yet to be addressed.

And we also, as I've noted in many an earlier post, have a black president who is waging (indeed, escalating) two wars. To bring this up might seem irrelevant to a discussion of King--but that's only because we've forgotten his other speech, his more radical speech, the speech in which he made clear that dismantling racism is neither sufficient nor possible without dismantling the systems of economic injustice and military imperialism on which racism is founded.

I refer to King's speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," which he delivered on April 4, 1967, a year before his death. In this speech, King argued that domestic racism was only one symptom of a larger social malaise of international reach, a malaise reflected both by the criminal war in Vietnam and by economic inequality at home and abroad. This speech, not surprisingly, turned many of King's former supporters against him; he was upbraided for dabbling in matters about which he knew nothing, vilified as anti-American, decried as a Communist. He was treated, in short, the way antiwar protestors are always treated: as traitors to their nation.

But his words remain as resonant today as they were over 40 years ago. Just listen to them:

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. . . . One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: 'This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

That's the message I take from King's dream: the radical message of revolution not only in the arena of race relations but in the way our entire global social, political, economic, military, and environmental system is structured. We are far from realizing that dream; indeed, we are arguably farther from it now than we were in King's day. But if we truly wish to honor King's legacy, we must see that legacy in its full and true dimensions and do as he says: "rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter--but beautiful--struggle for a new world."

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Tale of the Tales

Well, my fiction credits continue to accumulate--I had another short story accepted for publication, this one by Trillium Literary Journal. (The story is due out later this year.) And I'm still waiting to hear about three pieces I'm shopping around, two fantasy/horror stories and one memoir. I hope to have more to report in the near future.

Since none of my recently accepted pieces has appeared yet, however, I thought I'd link you to a story I published a while back, "Azav," which was published in the journal SNReview. This story is, I believe, the most realistic piece I've ever written--no discernible fantasy elements, or perhaps it would be better to say that the story concerns what happens when a young person's fantasies collide disastrously with reality. I'm working on another story that operates in a similar register, though the disjunction between fantasy and reality is played for greater comic effect in that one, I think. In "Azav," as you'll see, I play it straight.

You can order copies of this journal, by the way--always a nice thing to do. I don't get any royalties, so my motives are pure: keeping literary journals alive.

Oh, and in answer to the inevitable question--"Is this story autobiographical?"--I tell people, "In part." But I'll never tell which part!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thank You For Your Service

I was reading my former colleague Ed Palm’s excellent essay on the return of veterans to college, “The Veterans Are Coming! The Veterans Are Coming!” In the course of discussing the longstanding ambivalence and uncertainty with which vets are treated on college campuses, Palm offers several very sensible suggestions to ease their transition, including: “Treat veterans as you would any other student,” “Do not shy away from any political or social issues appropriate to your class,” and so on. An academic and a veteran of the Vietnam War himself, Palm builds a strong case for best practices in integrating former warriors into the college classroom.

Only one of Palm’s recommendations has stirred any controversy: “Do not thank veterans you don’t know for their service.” Palm’s reasoning is that anonymous thank-yous are not only apt to be taken the wrong way but assume an unmerited familiarity with the individual veteran’s circumstances and beliefs. Several veterans who left comments on the website, however, have argued that they personally appreciated strangers’ thank-yous, and they have recommended this practice as, in the words of one, “good form.”

But is it good form? I’m not talking about the individual veteran or well-wisher’s feelings; I’m talking about the reflex “thank you for your military service” as a social practice. Is this practice productive of social good or not?

To answer this question, we first have to understand the reasons for the practice. As I see it, there are three principal reasons one might wish to thank veterans for their service:

1. They perform work that is vital to our society’s functioning.
2. The work they perform is difficult, demanding, and dangerous.
3. This vital, difficult work embodies certain values—patriotism, selflessness, sacrifice—that most of us claim to approve but that few of us adequately practice in our own lives or acknowledge in the lives of others.

Of these three, the second seems least subject to dispute. Military service is difficult in every conceivable way: physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, ethically. Shouldn’t people be thanked for voluntarily undergoing such difficulties?

Perhaps they should. But if so, then shouldn’t we also thank all the other people who voluntarily perform difficult, demanding, even dangerous jobs? This would include, of course, police officers and firefighters—but it might also include anyone in the penal system (prison guards and so forth), pilots, ships’ captains, bus drivers, airport security agents, field agents in the FBI and CIA, anyone who works with hazardous materials, health care workers who expose themselves to illness, child care workers who do the same, garbage collectors who encounter syringes in plastic bags, high school teachers who break up gang fights in the hallways, college professors whose students walk into the classroom armed with semiautomatic weapons, and, for that matter, those thousands of poor souls who went to work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It’s a dangerous world—that’s why we have a military in the first place—and though of course the risks differ by profession, there are millions of workers who put their health, their security, even their lives on the line every day, as a matter of course. Shouldn’t they be thanked for their service?

But perhaps these workers fail the first criterion: that of performing vital service to their country. I’m afraid this isn’t so either. Everyone in the list above—and lots of others I can think of, from orderlies to Peace Corps recruits to soup kitchen servers—perform indispensable social services; that’s how a complex society works. Again, one might dispute which job is more vital to society’s functioning; one might privilege serving in the military over, say, addressing the physical, mental, and emotional afflictions of those in hospice care. But I’d still argue that if we’re going to thank people routinely for their service, we should thank those hospice care workers along with our veterans.

So that leaves us with the final, and least tangible, criterion: the values embodied by military service. I don’t deny that those values exist, at least potentially, in such service; nor do I deny that they are essential social values. (I do, however, deny that one should indiscriminately and under every circumstance attribute those values to military service. As I’ve argued in an earlier post, we’re obligated as moral agents to judge the conflicts in which our military engages, and I would no more thank a veteran for serving in the criminal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than I would thank someone for breaking into my neighbor’s home.) Yet even if we grant the questionable assumption that patriotism, sacrifice, and selflessness are synonymous with military service, we will be forced to admit that there are many other people, including you and me, who act patriotically, who sacrifice, who give of themselves selflessly day in and day out. What else do taxpayers do? What do parents do? What do ministers do? What do artists, bloggers, environmentalists, antiwar activists do? In short, those who serve in the military—to say nothing of the military itself—have not cornered the market on social value or values. If we believe they have, our own values are dangerously impoverished.

In the end, I hope it is clear, this is neither an argument against veterans nor against thanking them for their service. Rather, it is an argument against the assumption that military service lies in a class by itself and merits a regard entirely out of proportion to the regard owed other members of our society. It is an argument for recognizing value where value lies, and for acknowledging the value one recognizes. So I’d like to conclude by saying, simply, whoever you are, thank you for your service.