Monday, August 31, 2009

Touching History

It was mid-afternoon. We had driven 5 hours from our home to Boston to be part of the throng that had made the pilgrimage to the John F. Kennedy library to pay last respects to Senator Ted Kennedy. We arrived around 2:30 pm, to find out that they had cut the line at noon. We were disappointed, but hung out anyway, looking at the flowers and gifts left there, chatting with others who had been through or had actually been there the previous day and had come back. We hoped to get a glimpse of the Kennedy family members. We saw a few remaining people being let in, and my wife wandered over to ask if there was any way we could get in.

And so we were allowed in.

The Kennedy family had been gracious throughout, keeping the library open till 2 am that morning to accommodate as many as they could from the day before. And here, now, approaching the time when they were to close down to prepare for the service at the library that evening, to be attended by the family and dignitaries, they accommodated one last request from some ordinary citizens. At that moment, something I had always heard but never known about the Kennedy clan was realized -- they really did care about everyone, and wanted no one to be left out if they could help it.

It was very quiet. The casket lay on its pedestal, the flag draped over it so crisp and vibrant in color, as to be unreal. At the the four corners, stood 4 members of the military honor guard, like wax statues standing there, in their silent guardianship. I was struck by a young woman in her Navy whites, boots laced up so precisely, a rifle, butt to the ground, next to her, almost like a museum display in her own right. It was hard to take it all in, what with the solemnity of the surroundings, the intensity of the scene, and fighting my own emotions, trying so very hard not to burst into tears.

Some members of the family sat before coffin; I believe I saw Ted Jr. there, but my attention was immediately snapped up by Kiki Kennedy, who was there at the velvet rope surrounding the coffin, shaking hands and chatting with my wife. Despite the gravity of the moment, she had a smile on her face, spoke to my wife as if she were an old friend, fawned a little over my daughter, and my stepsons. As I reached the spot, I took her hand, and found that my normal ability with words failed me. I'm not even sure what I said, but she thanked me and my family for coming, and her tone was so reassuring, that I felt a small wave of relief.

And then, just before the exit of the rotunda, stood Patrick, Ted Kennedy's youngest son and a Congressman in his own right. You could tell, for the family resemblance breeds true, and even with the passage of time the features that mark him as part of the clan stood out. Again, he chatted with my wife, and talked to my daughter so very forthrightly; we had dressed her in a shirt we had bought in Washington, D.C., which had a small American flag and the words "Future President" on it. It was my attempt at homage, for Ted Kennedy had fought for the rights of women amongst the many groups whose causes he championed, and what father doesn't believe his daughter won't be President, in this day and age?

My 4-year-old daughter stood there and looked up at him, with one of her beautiful smiles, and he beamed at her, and asked her "Could I be your Vice President? Just for an hour...", to which my daughter responded with the New England brevity she inherited from me, and said simply, "Sure." His face had a broad smile, and he shook hands with all of us vigorously. Again, words failed me, and I could only stammer out "Our condolences," though in my mind, I had so much more praise to heap on his father. He looked me in the eye and told me I had a beautiful family, and it took just about every bit of reserve I could muster not to cry. Here was a man before me, who I am sure would have liked to do the same, but showed remarkable self control, and to honor him, so would I.

The next day, I would watch Senator Kennedy's funeral service, hear the stirring words spoken by so many, and cry the tears I could not the day before. Whenever Patrick Kennedy appeared on the screen, I could not help but contrast the friendly out-going man I had met, with the now somber mourner I saw before me. At once, it was if the doors had closed, and the cloak of good will and honest appreciation could finally be shrugged off, and the import of the moment taken up and placed once more upon his shoulders. I only hoped that each hand he had taken during the previous two days had imparted to him some measure of strength, from each person who had so loved his father.

To listen to his voice, firm, strident, at times playful and emotional, coming as it did after his brother's impassioned remembrance, was so touching that, for a moment, it was if I could feel his life as he had felt it. It was a dam bursting, swallowing me up in a torrent of grief. I knew, if only for an instant, his loss. It was a feeling that surpassed the sorrow that washed over me after 9/11, for that was a shock, a terrible hour of destruction, and a long, slow aftermath. This was the weight of decades, a swirling river of devastation and loss, a boy, become a man, suddenly a boy again, trying to cope with the idea that the father he loved and respected, was gone.

All that day, every time I saw his face, etched by time, pain, and sorrow, I could feel the ache myself. Though our world's are light-years apart, we became connected, if only for a brief instant, in our grief -- his far, far greater than mine. Strangely, that is a gift, a gift that no doubt his father taught him, perhaps unconsciously, to give. For no matter how far apart people may be in this society, we are stripped of the trappings of our lives by things like death and devastation, by standing amidst poverty, or watching the suffering of others. In the end, we are human, and we must reach out a hand, to touch another, to bring them up from their sorrow, or bring them down to see a world they did not know of. In the end, we must share who we are with the world, and do our part to help others. And so Patrick Kennedy helped me, and perhaps, in a small way, I helped him.

That is the legacy that Senator Edward Kennedy leaves behind.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Glories Unforseen, Stories Left Untold

Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy has died.

It is not enough for us to grieve, though we must. It is not enough to remember, though we will. It is not enough to speak of the man's greatness, his courage in the face of cancer, or his determination to do right by all people. For he, more than most, knew this country, knew it's potential, knew the good in it, and knew how it suffered. He dedicated himself to it, not for the sake of a legacy, but for the continued well-being of a decent people, in Massachusetts, and in America.

He suffered right along with us.

He watched his brothers John and Robert step into the fire, to be consumed by it, even as they tried to free the nation from the miasma of its past. He, too, stepped into the fire with them, and became singed by it, but stood firm, and beat back the flames, though we will never truly know what part of him was consumed. He spoke so eloquently of his brothers in death, endured each tragedy of the Kennedy family in turn with stoic grace, and was their bulwark through periods that would have broken anyone else.

He was no saint, and given what he lived through, that should be no surprise, for to put one man under so much strain for so long will rob even the strongest of us of our resolve to be the best we can be. Yet, no foible or fault did he have that was so heinous, as to reduce him to mere caricature. No one would claim he was a paper tiger.

Respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, he fought hard for all people in this country, having a hand in such crucial legislation as the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993). Even at the end, he was continuing the fight to ensure that every American would have affordable, unbreakable health care. He would not let a little thing like cancer keep him from the fight, but eventually, he could not hope to overcome it, and had to fall back to the sidelines as others struggled to bring his vision to pass.

We will mourn, we will grieve, and we will move forward, because if Ted Kennedy has left us any legacy, it is one of perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds or unimaginable grief. He showed us that anything that is good is worth fighting for, and that standing upon your principles need not be politics nor personal flaw. He has left this world better than it was when he started, but the work has not been finished, the last wrong has not been righted, and the last lamp has not been lit. The mantle has slipped from his shoulders, but must not reach the ground; we must pick it up, hoist it upon ourselves, and continue to fight for the good works he envisioned.

Senator Edward Kennedy, the man is dead, but his vision and strength lives on in each of us, and that is the most fitting tribute there can be.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Unreality Shows

The term "reality show" is a misnomer.

The ideas for such shows are couched in concepts we encounter every day of our lives, i.e. survival, mating, caring for family. However, those concepts are twisted, removed from the realm of the normal and believable, and catapulted into realm of fantasy and obfuscation. Reality is stripped away, leaving only a tottering framework, dressed up in promise, false drama, and senseless intrigue.

And people lap it up.

The reasons are legion. It makes some feel better about themselves, because they identify the participants in such shows as "lower" than them, or less capable. It makes others feel good about themselves, because they see similarities to themselves in the people on TV. Some enjoy the banter, duplicity, and ignominy that seem to spring from such shows. Some like nothing better than to root against others.

And the networks create more.

In the process of feeding the public's insatiable appetite for more "reality," it is as if the rules of society no longer apply, and guards can be dropped entirely in order to increase tension and bring about conflict. The shows go further, delve deeper, become more invasive, and serve up a brew of suggestion, intolerance, ignorance, and greed that causes people to move beyond the boundaries of decency.

And the crowd screams for more.

As is inevitable, as the net is cast wider, as the calls for more grow louder, the producers of such shows allow themselves a feeling of invincibility and invulnerability. To meet the demands of the public, and to continue to fill the coffers of their bosses, they push harder, to come up with new and even more interesting concepts.

Eventually, the tipping point is reached, when human decency, compassion, and above all, reason, are tossed away in the name of rating and dollars. Suddenly, these shows become rife with the worst of societal ills: racism, sexism, scandal, innuendo, greed, and pandering. And the detritus of these shows is strewn far beyond the shows themselves, but in those deemed unworthy to participate in them, and those who participate in them whose compliment of human frailties and hidden obsessions are allowed free reign.

The past few months have seen a host of horrors spun out by these shows, from suicide, to divorce, to murder. The "harmless" diversions have clawed their way back from their home in TV-induced "reality", to obtrude on our reality, trying to shake us awake and make us remember that nothing is at it seems, and the people on these shows are, in fact, people, not CGI-images or actors. They bring to these shows the sum total of their persona, for better or worse, and as it seems, more often worse. We can no longer allow ourselves to be entertained by the lowest common denominators of humanity.

As long as the public continues to prefer insanity and inanity to reason, can it be any wonder that those who seek to influence America by spreading lies and misinformation are having their day?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Historically Inaccurate

There has been some confusion of late, in the media, and by extension the general populace, about the difference between President Barack Obama and the late, not-so-lamented F├╝hrer und Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler. So let's set the record straight:

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Adolf Hitler rose to his position by being elected Chancellor of Germany in an election marred by violence and the suppression of other parties, through the use of his personal mob, the SA (known as the "Brown Shirts"). He then manipulated President Hindenburg to call a series of elections, which allowed the National Socialists to solidify their power, and then upon the President's death, simply assumed his powers by fiat.

Barack Obama became President of the United States based on the results of a fair election.
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Adolf Hitler began a series of moves to expand Germany, starting with the takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia, followed up in 1939 by the invasion of Poland, which formally began WWII.

Barack Obama has made no attempts to annex foreign territory and has engaged in a systematic campaign to end the war in Iraq, and finish successfully, the war in Afghanistan, while attempting to open dialogs with several "hostile" nations.
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Adolf Hitler openly called for and approved a systematic campaign of genocide against groups within Germany that he felt were responsible for Germany's humiliating defeat in WWI, the collapse of the German economy during the Wiemar period, or were affronts to his ideas of "Aryan supremacy": Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Communists, the mentally and/or physically disabled, etc.

Barack Obama has begun a systematic process of bringing previously disenfranchised groups more into the fold, hiring more women and minorities for high positions in the Federal Government and encouraging people who are poor or unemployed to seek education to improve their chances of securing good jobs, while simultaneously trying to invest in new areas to provide economic growth.
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Adolf Hitler rebuilt Germany's economy by his "Four-Year Plan," which encouraged German industry to switch to the building of armaments and supporting the growth of Germany through the use of military strength.

Barack Obama is attempting to rebuild America's economy by infusing it with Federal funds, encouraging the development of new technologies and new industries, keeping financial markets and banks stable, and helping the auto industry weather the economic storm rather than add millions to the unemployment rolls.
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Adolf Hitler abandoned diplomacy in 1938 and based his foreign policy on Germany's relative strength and technological superiority.

Barack Obama has attempted to restore diplomacy between the United States and the world, and has tried to de-emphasize America's might.
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Adolf Hitler surrounded himself with toadies, boot-lickers, and sycophants, who were eager to do his bidding and would never question his judgment, no matter how bad it was.

Barack Obama has surrounded himself with smart people, who can engage him in lively and intelligent debate, and give him the information he needs to make tough decisions.
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Adolf Hitler seized the assets of people he did not like, denied citizens their due process, encouraged a climate of fear, and promoted the superiority of one race (while not meeting the high standards set for it, himself) over all others.

Barack Obama has tried to be bi-partisan, inclusive, and has not denied the right of any group to disagree with him or his policies, all the while trying top provide for the general welfare of the American people as a whole.
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There. I hope that clears things up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Specter Of The Gun

At two events which the President of the United States attended, someone outside in the crowd came armed. In the first instance, at a town hall on health care reform in New Hampshire, it was a man with a loaded sidearm. More recently, in Arizona, at a celebration for veterans, a man came with a sidearm and an AR-15 assault rifle. In both instances, the men were carrying legally registered weapons, and had every right, by state law, to carry them.

They were there to make a point.

Their intended point was to indicate that President Obama is in the process of "taking away the people's rights," that health care reform was just the first step to curtailing the freedoms of all Americans.

Ludicrous, I know.

Their unintended point was to show, unequivocally, that reactionary elements in this country are mobilizing. They have been given life by the election of the first African-American President, and simmering hostility, for years kept behind closed doors, is now out in the open. They have also been given a voice by news outlets, using the opportunity to gain fame for themselves and a TV/radio audience for their platform. They know how to play the game, and have played it well.

Now, the Second Amendment has been analyzed and interpreted since its inception, but the intent of the amendment was clear: the Founding Fathers felt that in order to ensure the safety of the fledgling United States, and to make mobilization in case of invasion by a foreign power easier, that American citizens would be entrusted with the right to keep their arms. It was a warning to other nations, that attempting to attack the United States on its home soil would be folly, given the number of armed citizens capable of forming local militias in short order. George Washington had already proven that militiamen and citizen soldiers could, in time of war, been honed into an effective fighting force.

Two hundred and twenty plus years later, the idea that any nation would attempt a direct land invasion of the United States is considered fantasy, given the strength of our armed forces, the weapons at our disposal, and above all, our nuclear deterrent. The armed citizen militia is the very last line of defense, and if it comes to that, that would tend to indicate that America has suffered a mortal blow.

So now the need for an armed citizenry is less pressing, but still, the right is woven into the fabric of the Constitution, specifically as part of The Bill of Rights. While an amendment can be repealed or even superseded by a new amendment, The Bill of Rights has taken on a stature that makes it seem inviolate, as if the mere suggestion that any of its provisions be struck down is madness. For better or worse, the Second Amendment is here to stay, and it's more important than we learn how to handle it, than to bemoan its existence.

For those who are decent people, who take the use and ownership of weapons seriously, and have taken great pains to handle their weapons with respect, the idea that gun ownership should at least be regulated, should not cause them any great concern. Yet, gun groups, most notably the National Rifle Association, stand staunchly against the idea of registering and regulating firearms, as if it some sort of affront, as if they are being told "we don't trust you." It is a peculiar stance for an organization to take that says it is protecting the right to bear arms, because by doing so, they allow firearms to fall into the hands of those who most decidedly should not have them, weakening their position. Just as there are laws that say yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not free speech (per the First Amendment), it would seem to make sense that saying convicted felons cannot own guns, or that guns are not allowed within city limits, would be just as constitutional, per the Second Amendment.

This fetishizing of firearms, coupled with the idea that the basic rights of Americans are under siege, is leading to an inevitable collision, which will not go well. That these men brought weapons within easy range of the President is disturbing, of itself, but not nearly so anxiety-producing when one remembers that our President is escorted everywhere by one of the most elite paramilitary forces the world knows, the United States Secret Service. No doubt a person carrying an overt weapon was identified as a potential hostile and treated accordingly, and would not be given the chance to create mayhem.

The flip side of that is that while an obvious firearm would be engaging the attention of authorities, an unobtrusive weapon could still be in the crowd. It's never the devil you know, but the one you don't, that inevitably catches you off guard. The presence of those weapons was a clear sign that tensions are escalating, and that someone with ill intent may very well try to assassinate the President, given an opportunity. This ramps up the tension further, to the point that soon, a person carrying a legal firearm to a rally or protest where the President is scheduled to be, may find themselves on the short end of a killing shot for making a gesture that, in a split-second, could be interpreted as brandishing their weapon.

It is fine to make your voice heard, to protest policies you feel are not in the best interests of all Americans. It should not require a gun to make the point.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Tyranny of Ignorance

We do not know tyranny in the United States of America.

There are some who may argue this point. They believe that the current administration is "destroying the American way-of-life" and "tearing down our freedoms" and "making us a socialist state."

They have no idea.

You see, if America were currently undergoing a radical transformation via a tyrannical government, they would not be around to be outraged or shocked, or even to scream out their rage at the government. Their freedom of assembly would be curtailed, their freedom to speak snuffed out, their weapons taken, and likely, they would be imprisoned without charge or trial.

And yet, there they stand, in defiance of "tyranny."

We do not know tyranny in the United States of America.

We do not know the banging on the door in the middle of night, the pistol-whipping of a family, being dragged into trucks and driven away, never to be seen again.

We do not know the subterfuge of an election held, results announced, then overruled by leaders on high, who impose their own will on the people, and stifle opposition by arresting and indefinitely detaining the leaders of that opposition.

We do not know the slaughter of protesters seeking redress of their grievances, being gunned down wholesale in the street by mobs loyal to the government.

We do not know the deprivation caused by unscrupulous government agents taking relief supplies earmarked for the starving and destitute masses, and turning them into profits for themselves.

We do not know tyranny.

We live in a free society, as free as one can be short of anarchy, where government makes rules, based on the will of the people, tempered with the desire to do the most amount of good for the greatest number of people. Those rules must pass not one, but three tests, as there is a balance of power, each branch of government reinforcing and regulating the other two. The Constitution provides the unshakable bedrock upon which all of society's laws are made, ensuring that in the end, no rule may harm the basic freedoms of an American citizen.

The people of this country are given myriad ways to alter the functions and fit of their government at every level, from whom they elect to represent them, to what powers those representatives have, right down to altering the Constitution itself if that is required. Any citizen may petition their representative to consider their view in crafting the laws of the land, and the people of this country can hold their elected leaders to account, via the ballot box.

And none of this has changed.

The Constitution has not been struck down or defaced. The branches of Federal government are intact. Martial law has not been declared. People are not being rounded up. The press is still allowed to report the news.

There is no tyranny, unless you count the tyranny of ignorance. It is not helpful to be mired in the past, to claim somehow that America was "better" or "truer" at one time, and that somehow the nation we now inhabit is a shadow of its former self. For the nation that is America today, has been built on the foundation of our Constitution, shepherded through good times and bad by our government, and is still a republic of, by, and for the people. So long as we can come together, work through our problems constructively, without malice or bitterness, our nation can continue to be strong. If we continue to wallow if partisanship, if we allow our fear to overwhelm logic, if we choose to trade barbs rather than ideas, we stand to lose everything we have built here, and for which so many have sacrificed so much.

We must remember that, despite any differences between individuals, we are one nation, conceived in liberty and bound by the desire to live our lives in peace and freedom. The price for this is putting down our preconceptions, finding compassion within our hearts, and making compromises to further the general welfare. If we cannot do this, then yes, out country will no longer be the one we recognize.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Shout Out

The easiest way for consensus on an issue to be reached is through discussion and debate, a laying out of facts and a critical examination of the effects of changing systems to alter those facts. The idea, is to reach a solution to a particular problem by incorporating the ideas of all parties in such a way that, no matter the outcome, all parties feel they have had their say and can agree to compromises on their position. It was this process, adopted by the Founding Fathers, that led to the formation of the United States, the layout of its government, and the process through which problems affecting the citizenry were to be solved.

Was the system perfect? No. The founders chose to leave the issue of slavery for another day, codified it in the Constitution, and thus, in the end, a civil war had to be fought to iron it out. It did, however, lay out a perfectly effective groundwork for solving problems moving forward, if you were willing to live with the occasional flaw.

The founders would not recognize their system now, mainly because it has been co-opted by partisanship. Republican, Democrat, Liberal, conservative, fanatical religionists, secularists, men, women, young, old... rather than debating issues, battle lines are more often drawn. Each side has their say, but at a distance, through the media, or the Internet. Groups talk at each other, not to each other. Rhetoric, vitriol, and spin are orders of the day. It is far easier to call names than to call for hashing out problems. Each side in every "debate" has become so entrenched, that any issue takes on the characteristics of the Somme or Verdun, where shells are lobbed, skirmishes are fought, but in the end, no ground is gained or lost.

Stalemate.

Currently, this is exemplified by the current problem of health care reform. "Current" is the wrong word, for the health care system in our country has been broken since probably the early 1980's, and no one has been in a rush to fix it. It has gone from being a necessity of life to a free-market big business. It has also become so entwined with employment, that economic downturns only swell the ranks of those unable to afford quality health care, causing them to utilize emergency services for even the most routine medical complaints. And this goes around and around, swirling and twisting as the economy writhes in pain form the short-sightedness of Wall Street barons.

If you are lucky to have a job, be independently wealthy, or be part of some organization, then you no doubt have access to quality health care. If you are poor, destitute, or perhaps have a chronic condition, you don't. The vast majority, as with anything, lie in the middle, swinging between having health insurance and not, between good health and sickness, between simple co-pays and staggering bills. There is no solid ground to stand upon -- one day you have a job with excellent benefits, the next you don't, and while they offer you the ability to take your health benefits with you when you go, the premiums are astronomical for someone now on unemployment insurance.

And so, our government is trying to change that. Well, some in our government. There are those, bolstered by market forces, the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance providers, and their own inability to see the forest for the trees, who oppose changing the system, who have fallen back on the cant of "let the free-market handle it." The free-market has been handling it for some time now -- and that's how we got into this mess. Remember all those foreclosures and bank failures?

The preamble to the Constitution states that part of its intended purpose is to "provide for the general Welfare." Tied to the ideas laid out in the Declaration of Independence, about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," this would seem to indicate that the founders thought it important that the Federal government ensure that everyone who is a citizen was cared for, not just in the fact of having established rights, but having available those services which would further the lives of Americans as a whole.

This frightens some people.

This idea, that everyone should have general access to quality health care scares big business, which is making it's living off the lives of Americans. Medical care is essential to the health and well-being of every person, but people have now been reduced to statistics and actuarial tables. People are a risk; if we insure you, you might get sick, that would cost money, and we need to maintain our profit margins. It scares conservatives, who see it as socialism, a system whereby the State treats all citizens as equals, when we all know that some are more equal than others. It also scares ordinary citizens, not because they understand the problem, but because they have been told it should scare them. Fear-mongering has generated irrationality in the citizenry.

So now, when we should be coming together, to discuss our concerns, discuss our needs, discuss the costs (both human and financial) of leaving so many without health care, we find movements to shout down those who are for change. Rather than engage in honest debate, hear all sides, build consensus, there are those urging thuggery and mob tactics, to disrupt the discussion rather than take part in it. It has gotten so bad, that meetings have been cancelled, and elected representatives have received death threats.

Irrationality carries the day.

A wise man once said, "all we have to fear, is fear itself." At this time, those words ring truer than they have in a long time, not because there is normal fear of the loss of jobs, homes, health care, dignity, but because there are those who would use abject fear to stall, delay, diminish, and derail the ability of the American system to tackle a problem and solve it, as we have so many times in our nation's brief history. Fear has become the new coin of the realm, and those forces who would deny the average citizen their right to a peaceful, prosperous, and healthy life are spending it. They do not want discussion, debate, or consensus, for if the light of truth is shone on their prevarications and obfuscations, then the American people will see for themselves, that the Emperor truly has no clothes.