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.

Monday, June 19, 2006

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences." This powerful quote from Winston Churchill is the centerpiece of Al Gore’s otherwise strangely languorous call-to-arms, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Even the title is a calculated understatement. The film deals with the issue of global warming with charts and graphs, punctuated by listless reminiscences of Gore’s life and love of nature. But for all the urgency of the issue itself, there’s a sense that to get too excited about it would be indecorous. The occasional tongue-cluck and that trademark exasperated sigh is about as action-packed as it gets here. In “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore cajoles, when clearly the crisis merits a cudgel.

Gore’s audience is well-groomed and eminently well-behaved, shaking their heads in solemn solidarity. Not only are there no wacky Global Warming Deniers here, but no Green Peace types either. Not a hippie in sight. No earth mothers in muumuus and flip-flops. No bearded freaks with bongo drums. No, this is your understatedly upscale, Volvo-driving, Whole Foods crowd. Conscientious consumers, let’s call them. No need for alarm. These are sensible people. Nothing fringy here. Move along.

They’re the ones for whom the Democrats unveiled their “New Direction For America” campaign, a document as timid and uninspiring as their campaign slogan, "Together, America Can Do Better." If this is, indeed, a new era, we are greeting it not with Churchillian determination, but like a nation of wavering Saint Augustines: “O Al, help us to be pure, but not just yet.”

Even the true believers aren’t quite convinced it’s really as bad as all that, although, in their partisan heart of hearts, they may be hoping against hope that it is. Because if it is, it’s not our fault, but Theirs. And we all know who They are. There’s lots of solemn head-shaking and tongue-clucking when Gore points to Katrina, let me tell you. But it never gets nasty. He’s obviously preaching to the choir here, but how remarkably subdued the sermon is. Sadly, as hard as Gore has worked to modulate his tone from openly chiding to gently nudging us in the direction of environmental consciousness, he’s still not cool enough to convert us wholly to his cause.

But Gore is only following our lead. Our casualness when it comes to the moral and political crises of our time—from the reaction to Abu Ghraib (“kids will be kids”), to domestic spying and the new no-knock decision by the Supreme Court (“well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so I’m not worried”), to the fate of New Orleans—belies the real and visible signs of a cancer in the collective life of society and culture. We seem to have developed a strange faith that society can survive on autopilot. We are not yet fully ready to be inconvenienced by the truth. Unfortunately, the truth may not be willing to wait for us.

Monday, June 12, 2006

I recently caught part two of PBS’s excellent four-part series, “Edens: Lost & Found,” which highlights four major American cities’ “practical solutions to improve the environment and quality of life.” Boston is not among the cities in the series, and while this doesn’t mean our city doesn’t have its little Edens, there does seem to be a slight reluctance these days to think outside of the box when it comes to bringing more of them about. Mayor Menino, himself a lover of community gardens, nonetheless seems more intent on building luxury-living towers to bring sketchy neighborhoods up to code, than pursuing human-scale, grassroots projects that inspire a sense of ownership and pride of place among residents of our more vulnerable communities.

Don’t get me wrong, Menino has done his share. But Boston can always be better. The community gardens are a start. But our neighborhood parks are in disrepair. Many, like my own Atheneum Park and Meaney Playground, where Ben Affleck recently filmed a scene from his new movie, are in an appalling state. What a shame that Atheneum Park, home to Dorchester’s first meeting house, is now a dilapidated playground where drug deals go down. This is not the city’s fault. The plot is under the jurisdiction of the perennially underfunded, understaffed Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which is trying to get a “friends groups” program off the ground, to encourage public private partnerships to renew and maintain these parks.

While parts of Boston spiral further into violence, and the leadership of the police force is in disarray, a couple of meager stop-gap measures have been proposed: a gun buy-back and something called the Boston Police Alert Network, which will send scary updates on crimes in your neighborhood right to your cell phone. If you live in a neighborhood like mine and want to be constantly freaked out, subscribe today! The fact is, programs like these won’t do much to cure the epidemic of violence we face.

Which is where “Edens: Lost & Found” comes in. The series proposes something truly revolutionary: that working and playing together, that music and public art rescue individuals and communities from despair, and literally save lives. We seem to routinely forget what all of human history and culture, from the Paleolithic cave paintings of Chauvet to the magnificent public murals in Philly’s inner city reveal: that for human beings, art is not optional. It’s not merely what we do in our free time, it is what we are. It is our essence.

We owe the current rise in violence partly to that periodic resurgence of meanness that has always plagued society. And when I say meanness, I mean that smallness of spirit that esteems greed over all, even when what we hoard, rich and poor alike, gives us no real satisfaction. Our destructive energies are the cancer at the heart of our creative potential. In the absence of hope, violence is a substitute for art.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Lincoln coined a political truism when he said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." With the rise of the science of poll-taking we now know with some degree of accuracy that the percentage of people you can fool all the time seems to hover around thirty. Which is, not incidentally, the President’s current approval rating.

The older I get, and the more election cycles I live through, the more astounded I am that the same tired rhetoric and the same sleazy diversions seem to serve well enough when politicians are in a pinch. What happens to Americans in an election year? Suddenly, issues like a dirty war waged on false premises in bad faith with a break-the-bank price tag of nearly $300 billion so far in which an estimated 40,000 Iraqis and nearly 2,500 Americans have died with many thousands more maimed for life, which continues to fan the flames of radical Islam, isn’t near as vital as the monster threat posed to America by…gay marriage?

With his approval numbers in the toilet, where they belong, in what’s shaping up as a tight election season precisely because the administration and its tools in Congress are running the government into the ground, the president is seeking to aid his beleaguered party by once again ramping up the rhetoric on same-sex unions. The last time the GOP grandstanded on gay marriage was—surprise, surprise—an election year, too. They may claim they’re not doing it to appeal to their base’s baser instincts, but new White House spokesman Tony Snow recently admitted his boss felt the issue was “politically ripe.” But playing politics with good and decent people’s lives is just plain wrong.

Truth is, both parties could get behind same-sex unions without compromising their core values in the least. Democrats should embrace it unapologetically, as they should the basic dignity, civil liberties and equal rights of all citizens. The very idea that visiting a dying partner in the hospital is a so-called “special right” is vile on its face, and it should not take extraordinary courage to say so plainly. Access to family healthcare, immigration rights for same-sex partners, and benefits from a partner’s will are all no-brainers. But social conservatives in the GOP can also embrace same-sex unions as the final triumph of their much vaunted family values campaign. Gay and lesbian parents are among the best, most active in their children’s lives, and most loving around. And their kids are healthy and happy.

Will Americans continue to be fooled by the knaves in Washington every election cycle? We should reject out of hand any attempt by our representatives in the government to turn us against each other, a strategy this administration has employed from the beginning, even through the horror of 9/11. Know this: a politician scapegoating any group clearly hasn’t got a platform to stand on.