Monday, September 28, 2009

The Blood On Our Hands

His name was Derrion Albert. He was 16, by all accounts a bright young man, academically gifted, who was determined to make something of himself some day.

I say "was," because he was subject to a beating, caught on video tape, by other children his age, not far from his school in Chicago, Illinois, a beating which took his life. He was hit repeatedly, kicked repeatedly, and even assaulted by someone with a board. He died later, of his injuries.

The reports are sketchy, as they so often are in such cases. Some think it gang-related. Some say it was a fight between two "factions" at his school, and he was merely an innocent bystander. All agree, that his murder was inexplicable, senseless, and brutal.

Why did this happen? Why must our children be made to suffer?

It would be easy to classify this as "one of those things," or something you see "in a bad part of town," or perhaps a "sign of the times." Have we in America become so lackadaisical, so disconnected from our communities, so inured to violence, that we are simply willing to fob this off as "somebody else's problem?" Would it be easier for us, perhaps, to simply point the finger at the parents, at the school, at the city of Chicago, call them to task for their inadequacies, and go about our business?

Yes it would.

Should we?


Ultimately, it is the responsibility of everyone who believes in a free and just America. It is always easier to claim that there is "nothing we can do" and chalk it up to a confluence of events over which we have no control. But as one drop of water does not make a rainstorm, the storm itself does not exist without the contribution of every drop it gathers. While the death of a child in a street in Chicago would seem to have nothing to do with you or I, it has everything to do with what we are allowing our nation to become.

We are becoming a nation of bystanders.

It has been long known by those in the field of psychology as they "bystander effect," wherein, when an event takes place and is witnessed by a large group, only those who are strongly self-motivated will attempt to intervene, the larger portion of the group wanting to do something, but fervently hoping or mistakenly assuming, that someone else will take action. It extends far beyond the moment, for even after the event, people are reluctant to "get involved," which is why so many crimes go unsolved, because those with vital information will not come forward of their own volition, sure that someone else will, or that there bit of information is unimportant.

Derrion Albert's beating was an example of the effect on the small scale, but also symptomatic of the effect on the large, social scale. Whatever the impetus for the event, be it gangs, cliques, or some random incident, the fact remains that such situations develop because we do not engage our neighborhood, our town, our city, our state, our country, on any more than a cursory level. We hand responsibility over to others, heedless of the cost, and then are shocked when events such as this happen. There is always a hew-and-cry, heads roll, and for a while, things are quiet, even as the underlying causes and problems remain, and the pressure builds up again. We stand by, assume someone else will take care of things, and go about our business.

There has been a lot written of late of "angry" Americans are. I posit that Americans are angry for all the wrong reasons. We have reached a point where we have ceded control of our country to special interests, to big money, to those who seek to profit from misery, death, and despair. We act as if there is nothing we can do, as if those in faraway places run the show, and we are but helpless pawns, toys for their amusement. We complain, we bemoan, and yet we do not exercise the power that is ours, to force change and to bring our nation to heel.

It is in the hands of every one of us to make sure that our nation is better than it was the day before. It is we who hold the reins, determining who does and does not speak for us. It is we who can demand more of our public officials, who dictate to them how we wish things to be run. No matter how we try, we cannot shrug off that responsibility, for it is imbued in us, by our Constitution and by our birthright. If we wish to have peace, happiness, and tranquility, it is up to us to ensure that these things are brought about, not simply for us, but for everyone.

There was no reason this boy had to die. There is certainly no reason he and other children like him have to die in such a despicable fashion. If we, as Americans, believe in the ideals set for in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, then it is our responsibility, to see that every American need not fear for their life, that each child is safe, warm, fed, and clothed, that no person should go without when there is plenty to be had. If we leave it up to the handful of people we elect, there is no guarantee that our country will be run as befits a nation that fought so hard for independence. If we listen to the voices that say there is no profit in helping others, we stain the memory of those who fought to give us freedom with the blood of innocents. If we do not demand accountability, reason, and above all, compassion, then we have no right to complain as our liberties are trampled. The rights and liberties we take for granted extend to all Americans, not just a privileged few.

Let the death of this young man not be in vain. Let it be a rallying cry. Let Americans be angry about the senseless death and unnecessary poverty that afflicts this nation, and then let us all, together, do something about it. No American can be, or should be, expendable.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What It Is, Ain't Exactly Clear

Sitting on the beach over the weekend, basking in a late Summer sun, a cool breeze slipping over the sand, surf pounding the shore, I was struck by the thought of how the sand I was digging my toes into, the sand that kept getting on our beach blanket, the sand my daughter was forming into castles, started its life as hard, seemingly unyielding stone, a million or so years ago. The pounding surf, its roar at times physical as well as auditory, even at its weakest, could be seen pushing large stones onto the beach. The sand, the stones... they had been part of mountain ranges or continental shelves at one time, huge expanses of upthrust rock, exposed to the elemental forces of nature, the friction of surging water, scouring wind, burning heat, and bitter cold. The titanic forces which shaped the Earth, gave it the substance and form we know today, were now replaced by the slow and inexorable forces of erosion and decay. No thing, even a thing built by the universe itself, can withstand time and tide.

We triumphantly declare that we have built our homes, our cities, our governments, on "solid ground." We see only the surface, not unlike the metaphoric iceberg. We act as if the ground will never move, never change, will stand for eternity. Nature shows us otherwise. It shows us the true face of the universe: change. Sir Isaac Newton enumerated and outlined the ways of the universe centuries ago, and even though Einstein supplanted some of Newton's knowledge on the scale of the very small, on the scale of the very large, the Laws of Thermodynamics still apply. In essence, they tell us that things will never, truly, stay the same, that everything will run down in the end. Order becomes chaos.

It is, no doubt, why evolution works via the auspices of natural selection, and why those organisms that can adapt to change most readily, tend to survive. Those who adapt, spread. They grow in number, consuming resources until the resources dwindle and natural forces take over, causing the population to decrease, and forcing the organisms to adapt to the new set of environmental circumstances.

What sets Mankind apart from most organisms on Earth is not just our supreme adaptability, but our constant attempts to impose order on our environment. Cities, roads, laws -- these are all products of our desire to make things better, more efficient, safer, more productive. Rather than be subject to the vagaries of natural forces, we seek to mitigate them, block them, or make them work for us rather than against us. We have taken natural selection to a new level, a level of self-selection and self-invention, straining against the limitations imposed on us. We seek to carve order out of the chaos.

While it has created much success, and allowed us to become masters of our globe, perhaps it has also filled us with hubris, believing we are somehow beyond the grip of the mundane world. Every so often, via hurricane, or earthquake, or tsunami, nature reminds us, that it is not so simple.

So, too, is it with our social order. For if we strive to adapt the world to our needs, we also seek to adapt society to our wishes. Some people, some groups, feel that things must be just so. Those groups and people are opposed by others, who wish things to be some other way. Each person, each group, sees the world clearly, through their eyes, tinted by their beliefs, and has the blueprint for success for the whole human race. No matter how well-meaning, inevitably there is conflict, for not everyone believes the same thing, or if they do, they do not necessarily believe it in the same way. Compared to the mountains, human will is even more unyielding.

It is amazing that human society has managed to survive for millennia, given it's propensity for turning on itself. No matter what order we may create, we eventually give in to pandering, proselytizing, fear, and our animal passions, and tear down that which so much effort created. Empires rise and fall. Nations come, and go. Communities live, and die. The cycle goes on, for what is torn down is invariably plowed under, built over, and new things rise from the ashes of the old. Change marches on.

America is currently seeing a swelling of outrage, the like of which has not been evident since the isolationist movement, which intended to keep us out of WWII, or the civil rights movement of the 60's. The ruckus and uproar over changes in government policy, the attempt to reform and build up universal health care, to add new life to the Supreme Court, and handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differently, leads some to believe that their country is somehow being pulled out from under them, a conjurers trick meant to strip them of their liberties and destroy the "American way of life."

This is nothing new.

While some have intimated -- with some degree of truth -- that much of the acrimony is stirred by sour grapes, inherent racism, and partisan politics, the fact is, the over-arching cause is simple: change. Inevitably there is change in America, and Americans don't like it. Presidents come and go. Policies that are upheld by one administration are reversed by another. Things that were considered political suicide gain new life. The ebb and flow of life in America remains the same -- only the details change, as years pass. If many in this country are said to be angry, one only has to look through the past 200 years and more of our history to realize that at every stage, people were angry. Voices have always risen in opposition to change, whether it was women's suffrage, slavery, Indian affairs, the taxes on tea, the prohibition of liquor, the price of gasoline, entry into any one of many wars... the list goes on. When Americans feel that the direction of the country is wrong, they stand up, and they say so.

Whatever you may think of the motivations, the messages, and the actions of those who protest, it is the very fact that they can protest that means this country is doing just fine. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Uncivil War, Redux

It can no longer be considered a fluke -- Representative Joe Wilson has some company.

To be fair, Joe Wilson was never really alone, though his ascension to the highest peak of incivility was well documented. Beyond shouting down and verbally lambasting the President of the United States, the only possibility to eclipse such a moment of indiscretion would be insulting an emissary from an intergalactic species, during a first contact situation.

Subsequent to this, there have been two equally high profile incidents of incivility, which lead me to question the status of the human species as predominant because of our highly-developed cerebral cortex. Now, for sheer power and gall, neither of these incidents compare to Representative Wilson's faux pas, but they do highlight the fact that, at least for the 'American' branch of the human family tree, social civility has gone the way of the dinosaurs:

- Serena William, tennis professional, champion, fashion designer, and media darling, reacted in a most unbecoming manner to a line judge at the U.S. Open, when called for a "foot fault." Her demeanor was less than professional, when she suggested she would a tracheotomy of the judge with her racket (or something to that effect). She has subsequently apologized.

- Kanye West, musician, author, music producer, decided to interrupt the acceptance speech of Taylor Swift during the MTV Video Music Awards (which is odd, since I was unaware MTV played music videos anymore), to lament Beyoncé Knowles not winning that particular award. An apology appeared on his blog after the event.

Apparently, live television has the effect of incapacitating the sensibilities of those susceptible to its effects. Some radiation or magnetism seems to seep into the brains of the unknowing, causing them to blurt out their innermost thoughts. It is the television equivalent of road rage.

Perhaps, in the end, that's what it is: visceral, unfocused, pent up rage. Bottled up in a vessel of human construction, under the right amount of pressure, the vessel cracks and spews forth invective, vitriol, and unmitigated emotion. We cannot know how long it stewed or how much of this foul concoction brewed there, deep in the dark recesses of the brain, before containment could no longer be maintained. We only see the end result: Krakatoa writ on the human scale.

It is easy to pick on these public figures, for they had nowhere to hide, trapped in the baleful glare of the camera eye. With no one or no thing to hide behind, they are now the easy fodder for those who see them as pariahs, or as poor role models, or embarrassing reminders of times past. And yet, who amongst us has not done the same? I mentioned road rage previously, and perhaps these are only the most visible signs that our society has lost its capacity for dealing with the stress of our everyday lives, devolving into a maelstrom of irrational behavior. We all do it, whether it be a full-throated roar or muttering under our breath, in front of associates, or family, or even children.

If we are wont to wonder how our society got here, perhaps we need look no further than our country's past. American society has always been pushing against the strictures and restrictions placed on it by many a legal and/or moral authority; the nation was founded mainly by groups who chafed under the restrictions placed on them by the governments and religious authorities of their original home countries. They came here to establish their own communities, with their own codes, free of the condemnation and scorn they knew at home, only to be forced to endure it again when the Americas were colonized and rules and taxes established by foreign governments. This fomented revolution, a revolution that was stitched together by compromise, because while all agreed that freedom was preferable to tyranny, they also believed that should be allowed to maintain their individual way of life, even under the auspices of a more centralized government of their own creation.

So, while foreign control was replaced by more localized control, there was still the feeling of constriction. The States grappled with the Federal government, claiming their power was inviolate, Constitution or no. This came to a head with the abolitionist movement and The Civil War, when State's rights came into direct conflict with the Constitutional idea that "all men are created equal." Even that war, however, could not quell the feelings of the average American, that somehow others had too much control, too much power over them. This would continue to be an issue, flaring up in the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, etc. States continued (and do still) to fight the Federal government, keeping the Supreme Court busy, as they tried to define the lines of control.

With each passing year, with every event that transpires, it seems the field widens, the divisions become broader, and civility becomes more watered down. Those who profess peace, compromise, consensus, and integrity, are easy targets for marksmen and for pundits. It is far easier to cling to ones own beliefs, to inveigh against change, to see others as a foe to be defeated, rather than a person with the same rights and privileges as you. It is far easier to throw up barriers to discourse, than to tear down walls of ignorance. It is easier to see the world as solid, unchanging, than it is to realize it is fluid and dynamic.

Perhaps there was never any true civility in this nation, only a grudging respect, tempered by the need to provide and to survive. Maybe, back when the longevity of the United States was not assured, it was easier to put aside differences, rather than show weakness to be exploited by a potential enemy. Given that we are more than two centuries on, maybe the pretense is no longer maintained. Now, the petty squabbles and counter-productive clashes of ideals are able to break out and run, unimpeded, throughout the land, bringing us to a point where we no longer feel bound to the rules of social, civilized society.

In the end, we stand on the brink of watching our peace and tranquility torn asunder, by ego and hubris. If we would see our nation survive another two centuries, we must take these breaches, these lapses of judgment and character, and use them as lessons for future generations. A house divided against itself will not stand -- a nation united by compromise will not fall.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

8 years.

8 years is a long time, and yet not so long.

8 years since a cool, clear, sunny day in New York City changed every one's lives forever.

For 2,751 people, it was the end of their lives, a fact they would not have contemplated that day.

For hundreds of thousands more, perhaps millions, like myself, we were witness to their death in one fashion or another, and were unprepared for what we saw.

For tens, nay hundreds of millions of people, it was the end of their cherished naiveté and the disruption of their cocoon of ignorance. The world, which was "out there," was suddenly here, on our soil, in our face.

There was death -- raw and uncleansed -- on our television screens.

There was destruction, of a type Hollywood could never have envisioned.

There were emotions on a scale undreamed -- incredulity, sorrow, fear, bravery, helplessness.

And there was loss. Loss of life. Loss of innocence. Loss of hope.

8 years on, and the day is no easier to process for me now, than it was then, and I was in midtown Manhattan, not at the epicenter of the disaster. It was not I, running through the streets, covered in dust, trying to outrun falling debris. It was not I, clambering down endless flights of stairs, in the dark, choking on smoke, trying to get out into the light of day. It was not I, charging into the chaos, attempting to quell the inferno and rescue the wounded. It was not I, standing over the smoking remains, desperate to find survivors.

For me, it was a day indelibly etched on my conscious mind, so clear now, that to close my eyes and focus, brings it back to sharp relief. Television screens in offices, showing the burning towers, then the collapsing towers. Rows of empty cubicles. The first moments, when word spread like wildfire of the first plane's impact. The dread at the impact of the second plane. Being told that a bomb threat had been called into my building, but not leaving because there was really nowhere to go. Looking between two buildings at the far distant towers, wreathed in their funeral pyres, then hearing a TV anchor claim one was collapsing, and looking back to see it gone. Sparrows, normally drowned out by traffic, chirping in empty streets, so loud as to be unbelievable. Standing in an endless line, waiting to board a boat. Riding a Corps of Engineers river dredge across the Hudson, and seeing the column of smoke rising high above the city. A little girl in a stroller, with her mother, standing next to me. A crowded bus, taking us to the trains. Stopping at the liquor store on my way home, to an apartment I had only been in for ten days after separating from my wife. No long distance service, forcing me to call my parents with a calling card. Restless sleep.

I cannot forget. The pain may ease, but the memory must not weaken. This day was a seminal moment in the life of a country which thought itself invincible and invulnerable, which let foolish pride take the place of measured paranoia. For now, the pendulum has swung and we live in a country gripped by forces that would have us surrender our dignity, our morality, and our rights, to fight an ephemeral enemy, one that lurks in shadow, and knows how to stay hidden from view. As years pass, hopefully this will soften, for if it does not, we stand to work ourselves into another disaster of epic proportions: the destruction of American society.

So on this day, let us not forget the innocent lives lost, the bravery of many who tried to save lives, and the despicable acts that brought us together as a nation that day. Let us honor them in our own way, and let us take from this the hope for peace.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Uncivil War

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina probably feels pretty bad right now.

It is safe to say that his outburst during President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, will go down infamy, and the ignominy of that moment will dog him now and for the rest of his life.

As it should.

When the President of the United States petitions Congress for the right to address both houses, it is usually a serious event: the State of the Union address, a declaration of war, or the announcement of a wide and sweeping change in national policy. The President does not do this lightly. He seeks audience with the Legislative branch, to make clear what the course of the nation must be. As such, he is accorded the honor of addressing both houses in joint session, and with that, is granted a level of decorum that is unheralded in the usual course of politics in Washington, D.C.

Representative Wilson violated that decorum.

As such, he is to be, rightly, condemned for his impertinence. He has apologized, saying the moment got the better of him, but even so, we expect our elected representatives to carry themselves with honor and with respect at these times. His outburst, live, for all America to see, brings a stain on the honor of South Carolina which it did not need. He represents the people of his district, and no matter what they may think of the President, I am certain they do not think he should be treated in such a manner.

The opprobrium raised by this moment of indiscretion began almost immediately, surging over the Internet like a nuclear shock wave, raising the ire of people everywhere, not just in South Carolina, or even the United States. But in this tsunami of outrage, was expressed the dark side of human nature, for condemnation was indeed called for, but the quality and tone of the condemnation was in many ways just as disturbing as the event itself. It was also, perhaps, representative of our society's loss of civility and rectitude.

It is one thing to call a person into account for their mistake; personal responsibility must take the day. It is another, for those calling the person into account, to use language that signifies an intemperance or a self-righteousness that smacks of hypocrisy. Condemnation of an obvious wrong is not a license to let forth with obscenity, profanity, or intolerance. Those who stand against the common good, who do not see the world as we do, who have their own beliefs, and are allowed to hold them thanks to the Constitution, will never be swayed by reason, nor will they be swayed by being treated as lunatics.

This moment is one where we can take a long, hard look into our own comportment, those of us who believe we know what is best. While we must stand against willful ignorance, base intolerance, rank prevarication, and the perpetuation of fear, we cannot do so at the risk of becoming the very things we abhor. We cannot treat our opponents like foes to be crushed by the power of our reason or the force of our logic. We cannot treat them as petulant children. We cannot treat them as lost causes. We cannot see them as "the enemy." We must accept that they do not see things as we do, that we may not be able to reason with them, but that they, too, are part of the America we seek to protect. We must give them ample opportunity to engage in civil discourse, and where they will, be reasonable and not dismissive. If they will not engage us so, we can condemn them, but must not excoriate them, as they would us. We must not play their game.

So let us cry foul for what has happened, but let us learn from it as well. It will require that we swallow our pride and hold our tongue. It will be difficult, at times, to tolerate what we clearly see as fear-mongering and hypocrisy, but if we are true to our belief that the greater good must carry the day, then no amount of such demagoguery can hurt us. In the end, we may not sway our opponents, but we may show them that a measured voice carries more weight than shouted words.