Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Note To Readers

Here are all of my Boston/New York Metro op-eds from 2005 and 2006.

You can find current material, my blog, photos, and various and sundry whatnot, at mennonnosapiens.com.

Monday, August 14, 2006

You know it’s got to be bad when we’re nostalgic for 9/11. Much of the praise for “World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone's sentimental take on the terror attacks, focuses on the "togetherness" that being under siege that day inspired in Americans. Those were storied hours, the plebs on the ground scurrying around dodging falling bodies and fireballs while the nation's ruling class disappeared into their secret bunkers in various undisclosed locations. No one can deny it was a day of extraordinary bravery at Ground Zero. But the sad fact is that only by isolating 9/11 to the moment of impact can we tell the heroic tale we all want from that day. The further from Ground Zero we get in space and time, the more difficult it becomes.

The struggle for "The Meaning” of 9/11 began immediately after impact, waged most viciously by those who had watched it unfold from the safety of those secret bunkers. The administration unsurprisingly favored a simple “evil versus good” explanation, where evil is an obscure, indivisible, ahistorical force that needs no encouragement to act, once it is, for unknown reasons—gays? Abortionists? Senator Ted Kennedy?—unleashed. It is compelled wholly by its hatred of good. Don’t try to explain it. Fight fire with fire.

Anyone with a more nuanced interpretation was excoriated in the press. Attempts to understand what in the world had just happened, to contextualize 9/11, were shunned as justifying it, and likely enabling further acts of terror to boot. Don’t try to understand. Hug your children. Go out and buy something, no matter how small. Be good. We’ll take care of everything.

Now, nearly five years later, pandemic incuriosity about the roots of Middle East violence threatens an ever-expanding, never-ending war of “evil versus good,” where we live in ignorance of our enemies’ motives, in constant terror that “evil” will strike again. The administration reminds us daily of the always-present threat of evil, reiterating that, we, the people, are helpless against it. We are good, and evil exists to destroy good. Our only hope is that our protectors will destroy evil before it destroys us.

It’s a recipe for impotence. There have, in fact, been a host of movies lately that deal variously with our sense of helplessness. “World Trade Center” says all we can do is remain pinned in the rubble, and wait for someone to rescue us from darkness. That may have been true of officers Jimenez and McLoughlin, the subjects of Stone’s film, but it is not true beyond Ground Zero. The greater part of the fear we’re now living in stems from ignorance—willful incuriosity about conditions in the wider world. But we can believe both that what happened on that dreadful day was evil, and that it had complex origins in grievances, real and imagined, that we must strive to grasp if we are ever to defeat terror. We’ve been pinned in the darkness long enough. The remedy for darkness is not more darkness. It’s light.

Monday, July 31, 2006

A favorite tactic of those on the right who cannot defend President Bush on his merits is to characterize those with legitimate criticisms of his administration as “Bush Haters.” Now that Mr. Bush’s poll numbers have flat-lined, ideologues on the right have the unenviable task of having to justify their own heretofore unquestioned adoration of Bush to a nation much worse off now than it was before the coup.

Recently, Bush reaped a whirlwind of ridicule for offering a backrub to Germany’s head of state, Angela Merkel, at the G8 summit. The Chancellor recoiled, looking totally skeezed-out. Dubbed "Liebes-Attacke auf Merkel!" it was flashed around the world via internet. Bloggers went for W’s jugular. According to Alison Stewart of MSNBC's “The Most,” search terms that would return the YouTube video of the “event” were “grope” and “creepy.” One blogger referred to Bush as “commander-in-creep.” The Huffington Post crowned him our latest “lounge-lizard in chief.”

The gibes proved too much for rabid fans of the imperial presidency, arousing the ire of natterers and hacks on the right, who pointed to the popularity of the video as proof positive of widespread “Bush-hating” in the media, and among out-of-touch leftwing blogger-haters. Conservative columnist Joan Vennochi labeled one blogger’s characterization of the backrub as "inappropriate and unrequested" an "extreme level of Bush-bashing,” and went on to remind us that Bush’s predecessor had done much worse. Curiously absent from the right’s outrage over the latest wave of “Bush-bashing” was any mention of the right’s continued no-holds-barred hatred of the Clintons, which actually precipitated a constitutional crisis.

But Bill and Hillary-haters aren’t unreasonable at all, according to the Ann Coulter-Rush Limbaugh logic of the rabid right, because Bill and Hillary are obviously eminently odious. W. clearly is not. Only crazies could see it otherwise. There is actually a lively debate on the left over whether or not Bush is, in fact, hateworthy. The judgment hinges on the same issue that makes the difference between a “guilty” verdict and “innocent by reason of insanity.” If the famously jocular Mr. Bush means well, and doesn’t know any better, how can he be blamed for his actions, personal or political?

The right clearly feels that as an awe-shucks all-around good guy, Mr. Bush is innocent by reason of cluelessness. Were he to be chided for, say, launching a “nucular” attack on Iran, a simple “oops, my bad” would suffice to exonerate him. His defenders have always used his lack of polish as their chief defense of inappropriate behavior, and characterized critics as haters who have no scruples about attacking the differently-abled. And criticism invariably prompts lectures about civil discourse. The irony is that they’re coming from members of the party dedicated to destroying the foundations of civil society: public education, public spaces, public TV. I, myself, don’t feel that Mr. Bush is hateworthy, but as a symbol of a hateful ideology and a host of hatable policies, I can understand how some might confuse the man for what he stands for.

Monday, July 24, 2006

When Ralph Reed was defeated last week in his primary bid to be Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, it was one small triumph for common sense and moderation among a GOP in desperate need of some. The defeat of Reed, by his own party, may be a sign that voters actually do have limits as to how much brazen hypocrisy they’ll accept from those who would lead them. Who’d have thought? But was Reed’s rout in Georgia really a bellwether, or just a blip?

The former leader of the ironically-named Christian Coalition is only the latest in a long line of creeps cynically using a religious base to propel themselves to political power. But Reed, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the child antichrist of “The Omen,” was a creep’s creep, counting among his closest allies Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist with ties to the Bush White House.

Reed and Abramoff were friends from way back in their College Republican days, so it was natural that Abramoff would offer Reed a $5 million cut of the take from the Indian tribes he was scamming. And the scam was perfect for Reed. He took money from one tribe to rally his Christian base against casinos proposed by its competitors. These heights of hypocrisy are dizzying. Never mind the depths to which Reed was driven by his greedy demons. By my accounting he’s headed for Circle 8 of Dante’s Inferno, with pimps, panderers, and seducers, grafters, hypocrites, and thieves, evil counselors and deceivers, sowers of discord, scandal, and schism.

But not right away, unfortunately. We have not seen the last of Ralph Reed, not by a long shot. For those with outsized ambitions and no scruples to speak of, there is no such thing as defeat. But for the movement he invented and however perversely personified this is a major blow. It would be foolish to think that the era of political pandering to the religious right is coming to an end. There’s never a shortage of religious hypocrites—it’s still true, after all, that “Where God has his church the Devil will have his chapel.” But that small, seditious sect, only about two million strong, that Reed and the Reverend Pat Robertson founded two decades ago, which has been running roughshod over our national politics, may finally be losing steam.

Or maybe not. At the same time Reed was conceding his defeat, President Bush was signing his very first veto—of a bill to expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research. But what may look like a victory for the very arrogance and ignorance that was defeated in Georgia, will actually turn out to be a last ditch attempt by another brazen hypocrite to claim the moral high ground. Rest assured it’s only a matter of time before common sense prevails over pandering in the stem cell debate. The GOP will have to return at some point to at least the semblance of democratic governance which they’ve abandoned. And zygotes don’t vote.

Monday, July 17, 2006

J.K. Rowling, the marketing-savvy creator of Harry Potter, recently set off a firestorm by hinting in a television interview that the eponymous hero of the books might not survive the last of them. Fans are gnawing their knuckles at the very thought of it. Overweening parents are wondering how their children can possibly cope. Rowling says she wrote the final chapter of the last book before she started writing the first one. She says she doesn’t want to reveal who dies because she doesn’t want the hate mail. But this Überauthor isn’t a billionaire for nothing. She knows how to work it.

Rumors of Harry’s untimely demise have brought to the fore the question of how and when children should be exposed to the reality of death. But the truth is it’s the adults who can’t handle it. The Me Generation is having a tough time with turning sixty, do you think they’re ready to deal with their own mortality? The conventional wisdom on death these days is “out of sight, out of mind.” Death is the great equalizer, and we have become increasing hostile, in our world of competing entitlements, to any suggestion of rules that apply to all, without exception. We all think of ourselves as more or less exempt. Unfortunately, Death does not.

There is actually mounting evidence that the conventional wisdom on the Hollywood ending is just dead wrong, anyway. Tragedy, as a genre of literature and drama, remains vital and vitally appealing, even in Happyland. As British playwright Howard Barker wrote in his “Arguments for a Theatre”: “You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you're anybody's fool.” Confronting the reality of death—particularly the eventuality of your own—equips you for life, not least by lending perspective to it.

Even science is starting to refute the wisdom of denial. Findings in the burgeoning field of “Terror Management” seem to point to the arts as a valuable resource for coping with fear of death by deepening our experience of life. “The Appeal of Tragedy: A Terror Management Perspective,” a study whose findings were published recently in “Media Psychology,” found that “vicarious experience of tragedy, such as through film and literature, provides a safe way of approaching the fear associated with one's own mortality.”

The irony of parental concern about the death of Harry Potter is that violent death is everywhere in the media, and we hardly notice it. Our media environment is actually awash in violence and death, but it lacks the context and linearity of narrative. Random and disconnected, on an incomprehensible, inhuman scale, it offers no catharsis. It doesn’t have the impact of tragedy. That’s one reason Neurologist Richard Restak, in “The New Brain: How The Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind,” urges us to read. Should Rowling decide to kill off her young hero, there may be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the tweenies, but in the end they’ll survive, and be the wiser for it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

“Music can name the unnamable,” the composer Leonard Bernstein once said, "and communicate the unknowable." The shamanic power of music hit home recently when a friend introduced me to the indescribable Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose compositions, whether starkly minimal or ponderously layered, seem designed to rouse long-forgotten memories and hidden emotions. It’s easy to take music for granted these days, to forget that it can conjure the very demons it seems meant to exorcise.

Music was not always the stealth force it has become, but a funny thing happened on the way to modernity. In Paris along about 1917 early avant-garde composer Eric Satie (best known for his haunting, minimalist “Gymnopédies”) invented something he called “musique d’ameublement,” furniture music. One composition in this category was called “Wall-lining in a chief officer's office.” A couple years later, an enterprising Michigan entrepreneur, George O. Squier, patented “musak.” The rest is history.

Whether driving around in your automotive ambient environment or plugged into your ‘pod, music, like St. Augustine’s God, is everywhere—and nowhere—nowadays. Like the air we breathe, it usually goes unnoticed unless there’s too much or too little of it. Once in a while, though, you find yourself captured by a song in the oddest places—in the condiment aisle at the supermarket, say. Suddenly choosing between peppercorn ranch and creamy parmesan while the Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer” plays in the background is frighteningly poignant. You’re having an existential moment. Yes, music is as powerful as ever.

I’ve been thinking about the power of music and poetry since visiting Project: Think Different last week to see what they’ve been up to since the release of their locally produced hip-hop CD, “Empowerment,” late last year. “Entertaining Change” is both the means and the end at Project: Think Different, a media nonprofit that seeks to entice, encourage, and empower marginalized communities using music, film and video. It’s one of those organizations that is making a real difference in the lives of at-risk youths and communities in and around Boston by inspiring them to engage and create, rather than drop out and destroy. Project: Think Different helps young people who might otherwise not find their voice, and teaches them how to use it for good.

Which, at a time when so much music is borne of nihilism and preaches violence, borders on revolutionary. There is truth in the nihilism and violence, of course, but it’s superficial. It’s the easy truth. And as the poet Rilke once wrote to an apprentice: “we must hold to what is difficult.” Telling unnamable truths—the deeper truth of our humanity, the mystery of all those category-defying unknowables we contain—is at times a political act. Curiously, the less explicitly political art is, the more political it becomes. That’s because art is its own empire. Art defies subjugation, demands transcendence. The Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti continued to write poetry in Auschwitz. Politics will always be a necessary evil. Art, now as always, is a necessary good.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Rev. Eugene Rivers III hosted a “Thug Summit,” at the Ella J. Baker House (www.thebakerhouse.org) in Dorchester last week, to bring together high-risk youth and the former felons from Boston’s mean streets Rivers hopes will mentor them. Rev. Rivers is no stranger to battling despair and violence in Boston. The Baker House has been on the frontlines for nearly twenty years. Nor was the program set forth by Rivers at his summit a new one, but with violence skyrocketing, more funds are obviously needed. He estimates the cost of a beefed-up mentoring program to be a modest $750,000 and is asking the city and the black community to help him raise it. It’s a start. But why stop there?

It’s not hard to see the appeal of the program, which offers redemption for ex-cons, and the possibility of salvation for high-risk kids, two populations our society has relegated to the rubbish-heap. Our willingness to tolerate the idea of throw-away people is part and parcel of the human dignity deficit we have in America today, which surely contributes to the violence on our streets. We do not, as a society, do much to maintain the conditions that allow for the dignity of all our citizens, and we give those at higher risk of succumbing to despair and violence virtually nothing to strive for, and none of the practical tools needed to take their lives in a positive direction. There are those who argue that society doesn’t owe its disadvantaged a hand-up, but we all pay the price, whether you calculate it economically or morally, when we keep our hands in our pockets, shrug our shoulders, and say, “not my problem.”

So while the Thug Summit is a renewed call-to-arms to the hardened warriors at The Baker House, it should serve as a clarion call to the whole community. Because the cautionary tale provided by an ex-con is only a first step away from despair and violence for high-risk youth. If they have nothing to move toward—a practical hope, let’s call it—the work of a few dedicated warriors will still risk falling far short of what we as a community are truly capable of.

Our reluctance to dream big and act boldly for the betterment of society is part of what’s killing at-risk kids. They need more than a vague hope of escaping prison on one hand, and the promise of easy money on the other. Like all kids, they need mentoring by doctors, nurses, economists, engineers, tradesmen, businesswomen, and entrepreneurs. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. They need meaningful job opportunities that allow for learning through practice, and real possibilities of advancement. They need viable educational alternatives. No one is talking about a free ride here. What we’re talking about is a society that believes in human dignity and potential without exception. One that works earnestly to bring out the best in all of its citizens. We are not such a society, but we can dream. And dream boldly we must.