Monday, August 29, 2005

I’ll admit that a lot of what Pat Robertson and his pals in The Christian Coalition profess to believe might not sound very Christian to the layperson, but my sources on the inside have uncovered a lost text from the Gospels that sheds new light on the religion of Reverend Robertson & Co. According to the text, unearthed in Robertson’s sock drawer, the following passage right after the Sermon on the Mount was somehow omitted, leading to two millennia of mistaken notions about Jesus’s true message:

“When Jesus came down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. He ditched them, muttering ‘losers,’ and taking his disciples aside, said unto them, ‘all that BS about blessed this and blessed that and judge not lest ye be judged—forget about it—that’s for suckers. You’ll never get ahead in life thinking like that. Here’s what I really wanted to say. Now listen close.’

“The disciples pricked up their ears, and Jesus went on: “first of all, greed is good. Good for the economy, good for you, good for me. Binging, hoarding, cheating, conniving. Go for it. Any of those bleeding-heart liberals get in your way, remember: God is a Republican. So beat ‘em back. Tell ‘em, “get your own damn box!” And if they mouth off to you, cut out their tongues! And if they look at you funny, pluck out their eyes! If they’re the leader of an oil rich country, have special ops take ‘em out! It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than starting a war! And if somebody cries foul, you were a victim of bad intelligence! Remember: always the victim!’

“Jesus continued: ‘and that line about loving thy neighbor, and blabbidy bla. Good one, eh?’ The disciples nodded their appreciation. ‘Well, it blows both ways: hate your neighbor as yourself works just as good. And speaking of good, did I mention greed is good?’ The disciples grinned. ‘Yes, Lord,’ said Peter. ‘I always liked you, Peter,’ Jesus said. ‘I’m gonna call you The Rock.’ ‘Cool,’ said Peter. ‘Can I be called “Matty Mambo”?’ asked Matthew. ‘Sure,’ said Jesus. ‘I got dibs on Ace!’ said Andrew. ‘I wanna be called Queen Jaineba!’ cried Thaddeus. ‘Oh, Thad,’ said Jesus, rolling his eyes.

“Thomas cleared his throat. ‘But Lord, what about the, erm, poor?’ ‘Oh, them again?’ Jesus huffed. ‘Well, greed is good for them, too. In fact, if they were only a little better at being greedy, they’d be set. I mean, no one can be greedy for them. How’s that saying go? Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to rob a fisherman and he’s got sushi for life! So, go on out there and be robbers of fishermen! And remember: if all else fails, blame the Jews—oh, wait, I’m a Jew.’ Jesus knotted His brow in consternation. ‘Blame the gays and uppity women. Speaking of which: where is Mary Magdalene? I need my foot massage!’”

Monday, August 22, 2005

Since September 11th, America, in the thrall of political opportunists and nutcase neoconservatives, has gone through the looking glass, where reality is created not by consensus, but by fiat. The Bush administration has not been shy or subtle with their psychotic break from reality, either. Condoleezza Rice stalks Europe dressed like Catwoman. Dick Cheney does his uncanny Dr. Strangelove imitation from an undisclosed safe place miles below the capital. And the boy in the bubble retreats to his Neverland ranch in Crawford for month-and-a-half-long vacations clearing brush while the nation’s sons and daughters are being blown to smithereens on the battlefield that is Iraq. And for what?

That’s what Cindy Sheehan wanted to know. And while the question should be easy enough to answer, it irks the right because they know it’s a taunt: the administration cannot answer it without admitting to a pattern of conscious deception and systematic dissimulation. But Iraq is not only about the administration’s bald lies. It is also very much about the nation’s willingness to believe them, or, if you prefer, our unwillingness to contravene them. The emperor clearly has no clothes, but we have all agreed up to now to ignore this inconvenient reality. All except Ms. Sheehan. But when reality by consensus clashes with reality by fiat, things can get ugly.

In answer to Sheehan’s outrageous, improper, and quite possibly seditious question the Neocons, who conned America into a desperate and costly real-life war based on imaginary threats, did not repeat the sinister words a senior advisor to Bush intoned to journalist Ron Suskind back in 2002: “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (Cue evil laughter.) Not surprisingly, they did not deign to answer Ms. Sheehan at all. Instead they unleashed their attack dogs, who set to, chewing her up and spitting her out.

And Sheehan is an easy enough target: a mother bereft at the loss of her 24 year old son, Casey, and going through a divorce. She is openly emotional at times, too earnest for our ironic culture, full of self-righteous indignation that doesn’t play well on TV. She’s no polished politician, that’s for sure, despite the right’s insistence that she is a pawn of the “loony left”. Which, indeed, she has become, to a point. The Gold Star Families for Peace commercial starring Sheehan smacks of political opportunism. But whatever Cindy Sheehan’s take on politics, however off-base it might be in some respects, there is the undeniable reality of her son’s death. And the inability of this administration to address that reality, lest the one they’ve created out of whole cloth unravel.

The pioneering psychiatrist Karl Jaspers outlined three criteria for identifying delusional beliefs: certainty, incorrigibility (not changeable by proof to the contrary), and impossibility or falsity of content. Which pretty much sums up this administration’s policy portfolio. Time for a reality check.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The death of Peter Jennings last week and the news that Dana Reeves has lung cancer brought me back to my own father’s death from the disease a little over a year ago. Like Jennings, my dad had been a smoker, but quit years ago. And like Jennings, by the time he was diagnosed, it was too late for a cure: from diagnoses to death was a mere six months. A blink of an eye in retrospect, but agonizing and seemingly endless at the time.

It was a lot to deal with for a career soldier like my dad. It was hard for him to imagine a battle he’d lost before he’d even begun to fight it, and sitting around waiting for death was not his style. So he decided on a course of chemotherapy that may or may not have extended his life by a few weeks at most, but caused a good deal of pain itself in the process. Up to the very end, he insisted he’d be cured, even though his doctor had stressed the treatment was purely palliative. For my father, treatment, even when it was not working to slow the cancer, and caused a host of other ills, was about fighting the good fight, and became a stand-in for hope. And hope in the face of an aggressive, debilitating, and ultimately fatal disease is a real dilemma for the terminally ill and their loved ones.

Towards the end we entered the home hospice program, which I credit with allowing my dad to die a good death. He spent his last weeks at home surrounded by the people he loved. Caring for him was the hardest thing any of us had ever done, but his death taught us a lot about love and loss, and courage and pain—in other words, about life.

Which came in handy when, only a few short weeks after my dad’s passing last April, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. If my father’s quiet courage in the face of his disease had inspired us, it was nothing compared to my mother’s mettle dealing with hers. A little over a year later, and she’s a survivor, a hero to her kids and grandkids, with her whole life ahead of her.

My admiration for my parents has grown immeasurably in the last two years. I think back on my dad’s last months, when I moved in to take on the role of caregiver, and it’s not the bouts of bitterness and despair that stick with me, but the (sometimes very black) humor, the hope, and the humanity. And the sense that dying is a part of life, and not disconnected from it, and that it’s important to cherish every last minute of our lives together, which home hospice helped us to do. Instead of alienating and isolating us from one another, my dad’s death—as good and gentle a death as was possible—was as much a gift as his life had been.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Went to see the excellent documentary, “Murderball,” last weekend at Coolidge Corner. For a movie that cost very little to make, it was far more entertaining and affecting than any of the summer’s bajillion dollar blockbusters from Spielberg or Lucas, with their canned plots and two-dimensional heroes. Unflinchingly unsentimental, “Murderball” is the story of the US quadriplegic rugby team’s journey to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. But it is an intensely personal film as well, following the lives of team members, who face the challenges of life with disabilities with courage, tenacity, and humor. And not a little rage, which is why the sport now called quadriplegic rugby was dubbed “murderball” in the first place.

One of the best things about the movie is its raw humanity, something Hollywood hasn’t delivered since the edgy, character-driven dramas of the ‘70s. If there is a culture war on, it is in large part a continuation of the old struggle between propriety and authenticity. In an era when “reality TV” seems faker than a cartoon like “The Simpsons,” when what used to be marks of gritty authenticity (tattoos, or a pair of well-worn Levis, for example, not to mention whole schools of thoughts or belief systems) have become symbols of bourgeois self-indulgence, it’s authenticity that’s taken a battering. In an age of “x-treme individualism” there is an eerie sameness underneath the superficial differences. What is admirable about someone like Mark Zupan, cocky, foul-mouthed spokesman for the US quadriplegic rugby team, is that intrinsic spark of unstoppable humanity, his rude, in-your-face insistence on remaining fully human, on being much more, not less than what he appears. The same goes for his teammates.

In one of the last scenes of the film, Team USA visits Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a demo murderball match for new quads and amputee soldiers fresh from Iraq. Most barely out of the teens, the reality of their condition has not fully set in. They look dazed and confused, shell-shocked, hesitant to embrace their rage, unaware in their hospital environs of the indifference of society.

As far as I know, there aren’t any veterans on Team USA. The plight of vets seems unique. According to the latest figures from The Department of Defense, in addition to the almost 1,900 US fatalities in Iraq so far, there have been over 13,000 wounded, many with lost limbs. Nations are generally lousy at providing for their permanently disabled vets. At best they’re given too little to live on, at worst they’re ignored altogether. Maybe it’s because they serve as too painful a reminder of the ongoing cost of wars that never seem to yield the peace and prosperity politicians promise. They’re mostly invisible to us. Aside from the occasional propaganda piece about what excellent care our new population of amputees is receiving and how well-adjusted they are, and rare inspirational tales of wounded soldiers struggling to get back to the battlefield, their rage, in this age of propriety, is strictly off-limits.

Monday, August 01, 2005

This summer I went back to Budapest, my home through much of the nineties, for a vacation of sorts. It’s a beautiful, if still somewhat ramshackle city in the heart of Europe, where East meets West and North meets South, full of the same plain-spoken, hard-living scrappy sorts I knew from my own working-class childhood. But as I drove into the heart of Pest from the airport, I was dismayed that so little of the urban landscape had changed over the past half-decade. It seems the frantic pace of the early days of freedom from Soviet rule, the euphoria that accompanied the collapse of the Evil Empire, has given way to a new and just as corrosive cynicism when it comes to the promise of democracy.

In Central Europe, the go-go ‘90s brought a crash-course in “rogue capitalism”. There was the lightning-speed redistribution of wealth, the shock and awe of an invasion of multinationals, an explosion in sex-tourism fueled by the internet, new and seemingly endless possibilities for organized crime. Those highly-placed in the Communist Party in the previous regime were poised to seize state-owned industries and became overnight millionaires. By the time Victor Orban, a young politician who’d made his name speaking out against the Soviets, was installed as Prime Minister in 1998, the new government apparatus was already functioning as a well-oiled money-making machine, benefiting a handful of the population at the expense of the rest. Orban squandered countless opportunities to create a more transparent government and a more open society, and in 2002, the Socialists, led, ironically, by a former Soviet spy, were back in power, where they remain to this day. Call them what you will, the new bosses are basically the same as the old bosses.

That the old-school party faithful were able to adapt with such ease to a new ideology diametrically opposed to the one they had pledged absolute allegiance to for half a century to the detriment of their own nation and people, says a lot about a certain kind of human nature. There were those who flourished under the Soviets while most merely maintained. The interesting thing is that in large part, under the new regime, those flourishing and those maintaining are essentially the same as before (though maintaining is getting harder), and a new category has been added: those barely surviving at all. Homelessness, unknown in the previous era, is dramatically on the rise.

Having seen first-hand the devastation wrought by half a century of Soviet rule, I don’t harbor any illusions about state socialism. Unfortunately, the so-called “third-way” approach favored by Clinton and Blaire in the nineties, which argues for a middle-way between socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, has fallen out of favor for not providing adequate perks to the ruling class. As a result, the optimism of those early years has curdled, and cooperation and cohesion has given way to meanness and brutality in the endless struggle for lucre. Sound familiar? It’s the same old New World Order.