Thursday, June 23, 2005

As Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote in his splendid book, “The Double Flame”: politics is the great enemy of love. In the warmer months (and in warmer climes in general) love is ascendant. Politics is winter sport. We could not be so cynical all year round. We’d turn into reptiles. In the summertime we don't want to hear about the dark machinations of those supercreeps in the capital. Summer's here, where’s the beach? It’s not hard to resist the encroachment of the political into every part of our lives when it’s 90° in the shade.

There is something Grimms’ Tale enchanting about our reactions to the change of seasons. The maiden who’s fallen under the sorcerer’s spell awakened by a prince’s (or princess’s) kiss. Particularly up North, after an always brutal winter, the spring cycle seems like a magnificent discovery, something utterly new and marvelous, a rebirth. Winter is long, dark, epic, and we forget, burrowed deep in our holes, curled up in a ball, that love is what we live for. In all its various and sundry uncontainable forms. It almost makes the cruel winters here worthwhile, just for that moment of awakening.

The tyranny of politics and how to escape it defined the last century. A great book about the fatal opposition of politics and love is, of course, Pasternak's “Doctor Zsivago.” What makes Yuri Zsivago such a compelling figure is his defiant and ultimately doomed choice of love over politics in a totalitarian society where politics has taken over every aspect of life, where there is no unmapped private, inner place. That's what totalitarianism is about, after all: the false order of politics we impose on the chaos of human feeling, of love. Orwell explored the same territory in “1984.”

Both the extreme left and right have totalitarian tendencies, and never before have they been equipped with such perfect means to realize them as they are today. But human nature is the weed in their perfectly manicured gardens, and it can’t be stamped out, thank the gods. It keeps cropping up. The winter might be long, but once the thaw comes, all hell breaks loose. In winter politics is an end in itself. In summer it’s but an imperfect means to the pursuit of happiness.

Nowadays there’s a good deal of guilt attached to the idea of abandoning politics for love. But I think the guilt is a ruse. The big factor is fear. We are much more comfortable in our abstract world with the cynical predictability of politics. Plus we have a lot to lose when we open ourselves to love. Because love is by its very nature catastrophic, the Shiva of emotions, whether eros, agape, or philia. Politics divides, love unites to conquer. One is forever turning freedom to slavery, the other slavery to freedom. Of course, sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. A lot depends on the weather.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Last week there was a great hue and cry over supposedly controversial comments made by Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The outrage was mostly from members of his own party, of course. If the GOP is like a pack of rabid dogs, the Democrats, with their constant in-fighting and back-biting, are a bunch of conniving cats.

The controversy? Dr. Dean had had the outright audacity to go on live TV and call House majority leader Tom DeLay a crook, which he is; the GOP a “white, Christian party,” which it is; and the Republicans a bunch of bums who “had never made an honest living in their lives,” which they are. Yawn. Is this what passes for news these days?

Of course, what’s really offensive to those in Dr. Dean’s pretty much equally crooked, white, Christian, deadbeat party is that he had the gall to utter the obvious. In this faith-based age of the emperor’s dazzling new clothes, we don’t like it when someone comes along and points to the emperor’s bare butt. It offends our delicate sensibilities, you see.

That Democrats are worried about how actually uttering obvious truths will hurt their chances shows just how deep the rot is. Propriety apparently trumps trivialities like the suspension of the Geneva Conventions. I mean, here we are dealing with the lyingest administration in memory. That yet more new documents have shown knowingly twisted intelligence to whip up a very costly quagmire in Iraq. That has consciously employed fake journalists like Jeff Gannon for White House press conferences, and has admitted to paying real ones like Armstrong Williams with taxpayers’ money to spread lies about its failed education policies. Last week a pattern of deception by White House Council on Environmental Quality Philip A. Cooney, a former oil industry lobbyist, came to light. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously—and that is the key word here—this parade of lies in every arena of public policy is not an unlikely series of coincidences, but a full-blown modus operandi.

Where’s the outrage, you ask? Well, outrage is usually reserved for things that somehow shock us. But when you’re living in a culture of lies, you become inured to lying—it’s telling the truth that causes outrage. And you know the truth must be pretty bad if people are willing to believe—actually insist on believing the utter malarkey politicians of all stripes and the media—liberal, conservative, whatever—have been serving up for the past five years.

Why are so many in the Democratic leadership more vocal in criticizing Dr. Dean for telling the truth than in criticizing the administration for its relentless campaign of lies? I may be risking stating the obvious myself here: because they, too, are part of the culture of lies.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Andrea Kaiser and her neighbors in Dorchester have a dream: to build a community center that will truly serve the needs of the youth in a part of Boston where a hand up at the right time could make all the difference in a kid’s life. But despite detailed plans, cooperation with the City of Boston, and extensive fundraising, the new Bird Street Community Center (birdstreet.org) remains just that: a dream.

The Bird Street Community Center has actually been around for 27 years, serving Dorchester in a number of ways, but in the main providing a solid foundation for youth, a safe and affirming place in a sometimes hostile city in our age of sink-or-swim. Bird Street provides kids not only with the possibility to dream big, but with the practical skills and the confidence to turn those dreams into reality.

According to Ms. Kaiser, the Executive Director, Bird Street Community Center faces two big challenges today. First to its current programs: one of the most important services Bird Street provides is job training and placement for high-risk youth. Funding for the program is tight, of course, and a shortfall could mean it would have to be cut by as much as 50%. The other challenge is to the center’s future: while the organization has raised over $6 million to date for the construction of the much-needed new facility, it must come up with the remaining $4.8 million by December. A tall order.

There’s something of a ripple effect in society, so what happens in Dorchester doesn’t necessarily stay in Dorchester. When a kid can’t get skills training, can’t land a decent job, and eventually succumbs to despair, drugs, or a life of crime, it has ramifications for all of us. We have grown accustomed in these last decades to what the Bush Administration has dubbed the “ownership society,” a society whose mantra is “mine, mine, mine”. We need to get back to the bigger challenge of The Great Society, where the key word is “ours”. A world of “mine” is a war of all against all. Without “ours” there really is no civil society to speak of.

It has been a swift, precipitous drop from the idea of The Great Society of the Johnson era to that of the Hate Society we’re living in now, from the waging a war on poverty to our current war on the poor. From daring to believe in the American dream to sowing the seeds of the American nightmare in less than half a century. Sadly Americans have not flinched at shelling out nearly $200 billion and counting for a sham war a world away, while good people trying hard to build a better future here at home have to go jonesing for peanuts in the face of general indifference.

Still, Andrea Kaiser and her community aren’t giving up on their American dream. In fact, they’re in the audacious business of encouraging others to dream big, too. Nowadays that’s downright un-American.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I have to admit that as for TV, the trashier the better. My dream day begins with “Elimidate,” and “Celebrity Justice” followed by “Springer,” and back-to-back “Judge Judy”s. My afternoon would have to include “Style Court,” “Craft Corner Death Match” and “The Dog Whisperer.” But evenings call for more serious fare. That’s where PBS comes in.

I get the feeling that for a lot of people, myself included, PBS is kind of like a cultural Arctic Wildlife Refuge—a pristine and magnificent place we may never actually visit—or rarely—but it’s good to know it’s there. PBS is one of the few organizations I contribute to, albeit a modest amount, but their seemingly endless pledge drives (they say it happens only once a year, but it seems to last ten months) keep me away a lot of the time, and the fact that commercials—yes, actual commercials—have crept into their programming rankles me on principle.

The lion’s share of adult programming on public television is downright anodyne. Like the superabundance of home improvement shows totally indistinguishable from anything on commercial television. You’ve got your cooking shows and your travel guides. And fluff like “Antiques Roadshow.” You have to go deep into the heart of this cultural refuge to get past the cultural refuse. But there are some rare, exotic creatures in there.

One such national treasure is Bill Moyers. I have always found his take on things thought-provoking. He is one of the last of a nearly extinct breed of journalists and public thinkers: an unflinchingly honest, reasoned and humanistic voice in what’s become an increasingly hysterical national shouting match. Moyers doesn’t strike me as an ideologue. He is something much more dangerous in the current cultural climate: a free thinker.

With the ascendancy of the GOP apparatchiks in every sector of society, you knew it couldn’t be long before a non-party member like Moyers came under sustained assault. The Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, has launched an old-fashioned Soviet-style intimidation campaign against any and all in the media who refuse to tow the party line. Moyers won’t back down, but he may soon be purged from the PBS playlist, replaced by such complete zeros as Tucker Carlson, whose new PBS show “Unfiltered” (the title an unclever wink to the party faithful), offers absolutely no insight into the news. A trained parrot could host his show.

Every war is ultimately a war for resources, and the present culture war is no different. We lend value to things in great part by withholding them from others. This is where cut-throat capitalism and democracy come to loggerheads. The right has come to the realization that while knowledge is power, withholding knowledge is, too. This is clear in their stance on everything from evolution and sex ed to the War in Iraq. PBS is next. And a PBS without Moyers is like an Arctice Wildlife Refuge riddled with oil wells: no refuge at all.