Monday, January 31, 2011

Heart and Imagination

"I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination." -- John Keats

Is this what you voted for America?

We know that in poll after poll, Americans say that their top priority for our government to work on is creating jobs.

The Republicans gained a majority in the House in the last election and are now beginning to work on their priorities. What are we seeing so far?

1. A PR stunt of a vote to repeal health care reform - something they knew would never actually happen, but made a lot of noise.

2. A lot of talk about the deficit and how they are going to push for cuts in spending. Two problems with this: first of all, they can't agree on where to cut and secondly, they seem to be trying to make the case that it was government spending that created our financial crisis. Or at least that reducing spending will solve it. The truth is that - in some ways - the increase in the deficit is a result of the crisis, not the cause. Spending is down and so tax receipts are down. This is basic econ. And reducing government spending even further will only mean fewer jobs and less spending by those who loose them. Government debt is only a problem when it drives up interest rates. That's not happening now. It will certainly happen in the future if we don't make some changes. But the current issue is jobs...not inflation or interest rates.

3. An attempt to re-define rape and restrict access to abortions.

Rape is only really rape if it involves force. So says the new House Republican majority as it now moves to change abortion law.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to "forcible rape." This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion.

As odious as this last one is, I'll leave commentary on that one to another day. The point is...where's the plan on how to address the number one issue affecting Americans and our economy?


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Photos of courage

From GreenQuran.







Obama's speech in Cairo

As we watch events unfold in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, I thought it would be helpful to go back and look at President Obama's speech in Cairo from June 2009.


He sets the stage for how to approach the divisions between the Muslim world and the West this way:

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

This signals a complete break with the neo-conservative idea of Pax Americana and the Bush administration's proclivity to think that the United States could dictate democracy in other countries from the barrel of a gun.

And then he goes on to discuss particular issues, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, and Iran. At that point, he addresses the issue of democracy - especially pertinent to what is happening in the Middle East today.

I know -- I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

He goes on to talk about religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development.

Then he ends with this:

It's easier to start wars than to end them. It's easier to blame others than to look inward. It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples -- a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.

As we watch Obama react to the changes and tensions that are being expressed in the Middle East, we can be confident that these are the guiding principles and ideals that form the foundation of his response.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Self Portrait by David Whyte

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong -- or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying "this is where I stand."
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.

The other nine-year-old victim in Pima County, AZ

A couple of weeks ago we all grieved the loss of Christina Taylor Green at the hands of senseless violence. But not many of us have heard the story of Brisenia Flores. She too was murdered in an act of senseless violence at the age of 9 in Pima County, AZ. We don't have many endearing stories about her life because the little notice her death has gotten has been about that awful day it happened. Here's some of that story- not for the faint of heart:

"Early on the morning of May 30, 2009, Raul Flores heard a knock at the door of his Arivaca, Arizona, home. When he opened it, he found a man and a woman claiming to be law-enforcement officers in search of fugitives. Minutes later, the man shot Flores to death. Then, authorities say, he pumped three bullets into Flores’ wife, Gina Gonzalez, who survived but played dead. “Why did you shoot my mom?” Gonzalez’s 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores, asked the gunman, according to prosecutors. Those were her last words. The man put a gun to her head, fired off two rounds, and killed her."

The trials for the 3 people that have been arrested for this murder started last week with the alleged ring-leader Shawna Forde.

The portrait of Forde that has emerged is one of a self-imagined border security crusader who would finance her anti-immigrant activities with violent robberies. Forde had a habit of ending her emails with the sign off, “Lock and Load” and had close ties with tea party groups. She was involved with the Minutemen American Defense—her supporters claim she was once a Minuteman National Director—a loose affiliation of anti-immigration border activists who took to policing the border on their own with guns and surveillance equipment. Forde has also had ties with the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform. These groups have all been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. FAIR has distanced itself from Forde, and the Minutemen have disavowed one of their most enthusiastic members.

If the trial proves that this woman financed her hate-group by robberies that ended in killing any possible witness, including a 9-year old girl, its hard to imagine a more depraved human being. And I'll leave it to you to decide if there is reason here to call out the hate-mongering of the anti-immigrant forces at work in Arizona. Nuff said...

Friday, January 28, 2011

The SOTU and the Obama Method

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

- Michelle Obama, 2005

One of the things Michelle is implying here is the question of whether or not politics is capable of making change. I know that is something I grew cynical about not too long ago. There are many theories about how and why our system of democracy seems to be failing us - especially those on the left. But the methods we could use to change that have proven fairly inadequate over the last couple of decades.

In an article written in December 2007 about the primaries, Mark Schmitt identified three methods of change and assigned each to one of the leading presidential candidates on the Democratic side.

Hillary Clinton's stump speech is built around the speechwriter's rule of three, applied to theories of change: one candidate believes you achieve change by "demanding" it, another thinks you "hope for it," while she alone knows that you have to "work for it."

That's accurate as a rendering of the candidates' language: Her message of experience and hard work, Obama's language of hope and common purpose, Edwards' insistence that those with power will never give it up willingly.

He goes on to talk about the benefits and limits of Clinton's belief in "work for it" and Edward's commitment to "demand it." And while Edwards later demonstrated deeper problems as a candidate than his method for change, you can see why so many of the frustrati were initially attracted to him with their belief that "yelling louder" was the answer.

Those two methods have been what many believed are the sum total of how you gain power in politics - challenge the opposition strongly enough to "defeat" them or work at it harder than you think they will be willing to. The trouble is, too many times we learned that rather than respond to these challenges by acknowledging defeat or giving up, our opponents have simply rebounded by being stronger and more determined. They're not backing down.

As many have done, its clear now that Clinton - in describing Obama's methods for change - underestimated him by saying he simply "hoped for it." We continue to hear this refrain from his critics on the left who call him "naive" or "spineless."

But Schmitt digs a little deeper and explains it this way:

The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear: higher taxes, you won't be able to choose your doctor, liberals coddle terrorists, etc. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.


Jonathan Chait calls this The Obama Method and uses a foreign policy situation as an example.

Consider how Obama explained his approach toward Iran during a recent interview with Newsweek:

Now, will it work? We don't know. And I assure you, I'm not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn't work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty.

This is a perfect summation of Obama's strategy. It does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties. Obama thinks he can move moderate Muslim opinion, pressure bad actors like Iran to negotiate, and, if Iran fails to comply, encourage other countries to isolate it. The strategy works whether or not Iran makes a reasonable agreement.

As Chait points out - Obama's method sets up the possibility for a win either way. He knows its unlikely his opponent will negotiate in good faith, but he'll give them a chance. And if they don't take it, they're marginalized and his position is stronger in the court of public opinion for having made the effort. In other words, he's playing for the audience, not the actors.

And this week, Chait saw Obama returning to that method in his SOTU.

Obama's various moves over the last few weeks, including the speech, are a return to the political method that launched his career. I wrote a column in 2009 about the Obama method. It involves establishing your reasonableness by taking bad-faith objections at face value and creating a mechanism to work through them...

Obama is positioning himself for a clash with Republicans by attempting to delineate their objections and declare his willingness to meet him halfway. When their positions inevitably prove more extreme -- when they're looking not to reduce high statutory corporate tax rates or excessive regulation but to open new loopholes and gut essential consumer protections -- then he has the high ground to oppose them.

Obama actually ended his speech with his most powerful expression of this method. In part it worked because Rep. Boehner was sitting right behind him at the time with VP Biden. But the nexus of Republican opposition will likely shift from the Senate to the House this session with their majority in that body. Boehner, like it or not, takes on the mantle of leadership in opposition.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.

That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.

He took the power of a shared American dream right to the person who is going to be the face of the opposition - and in a very personal way. Pettiness and incivility in opposition will only look small in comparison. Its unlikely Boehner will change his tactics in any way as a result - and Obama knows that. What's more likely is that Obama will gain audience approval for making the move and Boehner will appear less credible. In other words, when in comes to the power of public opinion, Obama first offers to share it with Boehner. But if Boehner rejects the offer...Obama owns it.

Chait calls this "conciliatory language as ruthless strategy." And down the drain goes the idea that Obama is naive.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


More from Audre Lorde.

Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.

The Nexus: Disposability

A few years ago Nezua (one of my favorite bloggers) wrote a series about Nexus. In it, he was trying to find the tie that binds so many of our concerns. For example, in the first installment, he found that the grounding of so much that divides us is a sense of entitlement...and the antidote is gratitude.

Similarly, Van Jones has found a nexus in the idea of disposability.

For a longer version (13 minutes), here's a talk Jones gave at TED about the effects of plastics on poor people. From about 6:12:

The root of this problem, in my view, is the idea of disposability itself. You see, if you understand the link between what we're doing to poison and pollute the planet and what we're doing to poor people, you arrive at a troubling but also very helpful insight. In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people. But if you create a world where you don't trash people, you can't trash the planet.

We're at a moment of the coming together of social justice as an idea and ecology as an idea. We can finally see that they are now one idea. And its the idea that we don't have a disposable anything. We don't have disposable resources. We don't have disposable species. And we don't have disposable people either. We don't have a throw-away planet and we don't have throw-away children. Its all precious.

Perhaps the most powerful statement about this is the question..."When we talk about throwing away - where is away?"

This idea resonates powerfully with me because I've been working with throw-away children for over 30 years. I was moved as much as anyone by the senseless murder of Christina Taylor Green a couple of weeks ago. And I grieve her loss along with the rest of the country. But I couldn't help but think of the hundreds of other children who are murdered in gun violence in our cities every day - grieved only by their loved ones. We don't talk about their loss or do much of anything to try to stop it. They feel expendable to me. And we don't seem to mind that nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. We seem content to throw them away.

On the other hand, I'm starting to grapple myself with our level of consumption of things - and our willingness to throw things away. I recently did some re-decorating in my house. As I pondered new carpet and furniture, I wondered where the old stuff would go. I could see my old carpet going to a landfill and sitting there - for generations. It wouldn't "go away." It would just be moved to a new location.

We are going to have to grapple with this idea of disposability. Its not real. Its an illusion. And perhaps the way to start that process is to contemplate the reality of where these things and people go that we so casually think we're throwing away.

Just the facts, ma'am.

A few days ago, I wrote about Senator Kyl's attempt to claim that the Republicans were responsible for good economic news...retroactively. As I said then, this is going to be a theme in the upcoming months. It will be an attempt by the Republicans to re-write the history we all just lived. As Steve Benen wrote yesterday, they'll be counting on us all having amnesia about what happened the last few years.

Jay Bookman describes the Republican attempt to actually blame the recession on Democrats:

By cutting its own budget by 5 percent, Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that “the House has sent a strong signal of its commitment to making the tough choices necessary to end Washington’s job-killing spending binge.

In comments today on raising the debt limit, Boehner called for action to “cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington.

In announcing the tax-cut agreement last month with President Obama, Boehner said that “if we actually want to help our economy get back on track and to begin creating jobs, we need to end the job-killing spending binge.”

Such repetition is not accidental. To the contrary, it represents a calculated, organized effort by Boehner and other conservatives to try to rewrite recent history and make the American people “misremember” what actually happened to them and their country in the last few years. It is an effort to drive home the point — the absolutely false point — that the greatest economic collapse in 80 years was somehow caused by government spending.

It is an absolutely false narrative. And perhaps a few graphs can speak better to that than words.

Here's the monthly jobs gain/lost report put out by the Dept. of Labor (red is Bush's last year and blue is Obama's first two years).

In other words, jobs lost before and after the stimulus.


And how the stock market crashed and recovered.


To put it simply, Bush and Republicans got us into this mess. Obama and the Democrats have helped us start to climb out of all of that.

Just the facts, ma'am.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gabriel's Oboe

The inadequacy of the master's tools

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

- Audre Lorde, 1984

Many of us have heard these wise words of Audre Lord before. But I wonder how often we really dig deep to think about what they mean.

She expounded a bit on that in her book Sister Outsider with this:

As Paulo Freire shows so well in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressor's tactics, the oppressor's relationships.

Alice Walker picked up that theme in talking about her characters in The Color Purple. She was criticized by many in the African American community for writing the character she simply called "Mr." who abused his wife Celie. But she explained in her book of essays Living by the Word that she carefully portrayed Mr.'s father as "light skinned" in both the book and the movie. Her point was that Mr.'s father was the son of a slave and a slave owner - a son of both the oppressed and the oppressor.

We are the African and the trader. We are the Indian and the settler. We are the slaver and the enslaved. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We are the women and we are the men. We are the children. The ancestors, black and white, who suffered during slavery - and I've come to believe they all did; you need only check your own soul to imagine how - grieve, I believe, when a black man oppresses women, and when a black woman or man mistreats a child. They've paid those dues. Surely they bought our gentleness toward each other with their pain.

What these two women are saying is that we have to examine ourselves...both the oppressed and the oppressor within. Because, as Lorde so powerfully said, using the tools of the oppressor within us will never allow us to clearly see, much less work towards, the kind of genuine change we seek.

As we all know, someone like Martin Luther King was able to inspire radical change because he rejected the master's tools of violence and intimidation. And now Obama is asking us to reject the master's tools of the dehumanization of our "enemies" - to reject the certainty that only we have the answers and to embrace a radical kind of empathy.

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.

- Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

There are those who want to see this kind of call as weak or naive. I happen to think that it would be applauded by people like Audre Lorde and Martin Luther King. They knew that rather than naive, to reject the master's tools is a very radical act. And that it takes extraordinary strength to maintain your own identity while doing your best to see the world through someone else's eyes. Here's what Lorde said about that.

Change means growth and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those we define as different from ourselves...

McConnell vs Obama...a lesson in strategy

First, a little refresher on McConnell's strategy from Joshua Green.

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

And then a bit on the implementation from Greg Sargent in his article titled Why Americans think Obama is too liberal.

What McConnell was really saying here is that if any Republicans signed on to Obama's proposals, it risked suggesting to the American people that Obama's governing approach was moderate or even somewhat centrist -- something that could command some agreement. By contrast, when no Republicans signed on to Obama's proposals it made it far easier for them to paint Obama's agenda as ideologically off the rails to the left, which is exactly what they did.

If no Republicans were willing to sign on to Obama's proposals, that had to indicate that something was seriously amiss and that there was cause for real alarm about the overreaching nature of his agenda, right?

Other than Obama's speech in Tucson, this is perhaps why the lame duck session's accomplishments did so much to calm the fears of the American public. What got passed was not necessarily more centrist that previous accomplishments during the 111th Congress. Its simply that the voters saw that Democrats and a few Republicans were working together.

I suspect that McConnell didn't expect Obama to blink when he got all of the Republican Senators to sign on to a letter saying that they would block legislative action on every issue being considered by the lame-duck Congress until the dispute over extending the Bush-era tax cuts was resolved and an extension of current government funding approved. But he did blink - and negotiated on those issues. Looks like McConnell didn't have a "plan B" in case that happened and moderate Republicans were free to join Democrats on issues like DADT and the Start Treaty.

While I'll give McConnell props for coming up with an effective strategy that probably worked well enough to ensure Republican victories in the 2010 elections, Obama out-manuevered him in the end.

So once again, while the frustrati screamed, Obama was playing the long game and enters the 112th Congress on a stronger footing that anyone (including McConnell) had expected.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rep. Weiner shows Rep. Cohen how its done

Its clear that in the process of talking about repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans said some things that just blatantly are not true...things like claiming it will kill jobs, add IRS agents, and death panels.

In the midst of all of the talk about our public discourse, today two Democrats took to the floor of the House to call them out on that. I'd suggest that one of them (Weiner) got the job done and the other continued to be stuck in the muck (Cohen).

First of all, Rep. Cohen.

"They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels," Cohen said, speaking of the notorious Nazi propgandist. "You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That's the same kind of thing."

Cohen continued to compare the GOP to Nazis as his rant went on.

"The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust. You tell a lie over and over again. And we've heard on this floor, government takeover of health care.

And now Rep. Weiner.

You know, I want to just advise people watching at home playing that now popular drinking game of 'you take a shot whenever Republicans say something that's not true.' Please assign a designated driver. This is going to be a long afternoon.

Same message. But humor always trumps hyperbole.

What does it mean to help?

That seems like a simple question. And many times it is. But as someone who has been working in human services for more than 30 years, I can say that it is also vexing at times.

We've all heard the Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." And yet we still seem to be much better at giving fish than teaching people how to do it for themselves. Why is that?

I think there's several reasons. The first being that when a man is starving, its perhaps best to go ahead and give him a fish to eat. When resources are scarce, you have to choose priorities carefully.

But secondly, if you've got the money to buy the fish, that first part can be easy. It doesn't ask much. Teaching, on the other hand, is a much harder task. It requires more of a personal investment. And that's where it gets more complex.

That kind of helping was described well in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Phillip Hallie. Its the story of Andre and Magda Trocme who led their small village of Le Chambon in France to save over 5,000 Jews (mostly children) during WWII.

In describing Andre's ability to inspire that kind of action, here's what Hallie wrote:

But he did not give it (this celebration of life) to Le Chambon in the way that one gives money to the poor or gifts to friends. Trocme gave his aggressive ethic to them by giving them himself. Aside from the distinction between good and evil, between helping and hurting, the fundamental distinction of that ethic is between giving things and giving oneself. When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and by making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks - and even sometimes obedience - as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded - in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy.

Its in the act of giving oneself that I think we find the answer to what it means to help. But that is much harder than simply giving a fish to someone who's hungry. Why is that?

I believe its because we often confuse our own needs with those of the person we want to help. Certainly it feels good to give food to a hungry person. No one expressed that better than Daniel Berrigan.

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for the meeting of your eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to loose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.

If we think of it metaphorically as any kind of helping, that "meeting of your eyes across a piece of bread" is one of the most amazing things we can experience as human beings. It meets a need that we all feel in our depths. But thats OUR need being met. There is nothing wrong with that feeling. We need to embrace it - but recognize it as our own. When we do that - we can distinguish between our need to have that experience and the hungry man's need for food.

I'm one of those people who doesn't believe in true selfless altruism. Arthur Miller explored this question in his play After the Fall and summed it up well with this line:

To go to someone with the lie of limitless love is to cast a shadow in the face of God.

We lie to ourselves and those we might help if we assume that the giving and receiving is only a one-way street. As Hallie said about Trocme, he knew that a benefactor expects thanks (maybe even obedience) in return. But when we are aware of our own needs being met in the transaction - honesty, integrity and respect infuse it with reciprocity...and the magic of "help."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No words for this...

From Discover Magazine's Top 14 Astronomy Pictures of 2010.

Space near the Sun is mostly empty, devoid of gas and stars. But travel 7500 light years in the direction of the constellation Carina and you'll slam into one of the largest and most complex star-forming regions in the galaxy: the sprawling Carina nebula. Massive stars being born there blast out radiation and winds that sculpt the surrounding material, creating weird and wonderful shapes.

So what better way for astronomers to celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope's 20th year in orbit than to use it to take a huge mosaic of Carina? This astonishing portrait shows the towering pillars of gas and dust being eaten away by cosmic erosion; the narrow, focused jets of material blasting away from stars eating away at their cocoons; ribbons and sheets of compressed gas lighting up space; and the nascent stars themselves as they turn on for the first time.

The Whirlpool is actually two galaxies interacting with one another. The spiral galaxy is nearly face-on, and you can easily trace the magnificent arms, laced with red gas clouds forming new stars, and dark lanes of dust created when stars are born and when they die. The other galaxy is the orange blobby one, a dwarf irregular. It may have already passed through the bigger galaxy twice, and will eventually merge with it. We think all big galaxies grow by consuming smaller ones in this manner. In a few hundred million more years there won't be two galaxies left to see, just one somewhat bigger one. Our own Milky Way Galaxy probably underwent a similar event many times!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The expanse of the human heart

As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

- President Barack Obama, Tucson, Arizona, January 12, 2011

Today Mark Kelly showed us exactly what that looks like.

The astronaut husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the politician shot through the head in the Arizona massacre nine days ago, indicated today he would be prepared to meet with the parents of the alleged gunman to express his forgiveness.

Mark Kelly, who has been beside his wife's hospital bed since the shootings in Tucson on 8 January, said he probably would see the parents of Jared Lee Loughner, who has been charged with the massacre in which six people died and 14 were wounded.

In an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC, to air on the US network tomorrow, Kelly said he had empathy for the parents. "You know, I don't think it's their fault. It's not the parents' fault. I'd like to think I'm a person that's somewhat forgiving. And they've got to be hurting in this situation as much as anybody."

Kelly, the father of two teenage girls from his previous marriage, said: "I have children. And they must, I'm sure they love their son. And they must be as distraught over this as all of us are."

The verdict is in!

From the ACE News/Washington Post Poll.

Americans divide on the risks posed by the tone of the country's political discourse but approve overwhelmingly of President Obama's attempt to redirect it. Most also hold some hopes of political conciliation in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings.

Seventy-eight percent in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll approve of the way Obama has responded to the shootings, which he addressed in a speech in Tucson last week; that includes 71 percent of Republicans and conservatives alike.

On Leadership: MLK and Obama

In honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, The Grio has identified a list of The 25 Most Influential Black American Leaders of All Time. These kinds of lists are always controversial, but I found it interesting and educational. I hope you'll go take a look.

Melissa Harris-Perry follows up the list with commentary on From MLK to Obama: How we define black leadership. This is because #1 on the list is MLK and Obama is #2. She ponders why that is. I humbly say that her thoughts bear a striking resemblance to what I wrote about Good Crazy.

The close proximity of Dr. King and President Obama at the top of the list makes me wonder how we judge leadership and to ask what these two men share that lead our experts to evaluate both so highly. I believe that one reason Dr. King and President Obama share top billing is because they both insist that means are as important as ends in our efforts to achieve freedom, equality, and a more racially just America...

I believe that it is this crucial similarity that propels both men to the top of our experts' list of black leaders. Dr. King was not victorious in every organizing effort. He often made choices to accommodate opponents. He sometimes cut deals when he thought the best outcome was not possible. He infuriated ideological purists who felt that he too frequently compromised. Certainly, President Obama has not achieved all of his policy goals. He too has anger many who felt that he is too frequently conciliatory. But despite their failures, our experts perceive both King and Obama as worthy of the highest ratings as leaders.

Perhaps this is because both men are leaders who ask us to look beyond the momentary struggle over a particular policy. No matter how critical that policy is to achieving justice, both Dr. King and President Obama remind us that we can only be victorious to the extent that we protect democracy, civility, and ethical engagement with our fellow human beings even as we pursue our goals...

Leaders do not always win, but leaders always call us to believe that we are capable of making something better than what we currently believe is possible. For this ability both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Barack Obama are distinguished as the best among the best.

Senator Kyle goes there

I expected this would happen, I'm just frankly a little surprised it came so soon.

HUNT: Let me talk about the Obama administration and business. Corporate profits are soaring. Goldman Sachs named 110 new partners. Bonuses are flowing. S&P has risen more than in any three-year period since the tech bubble. General Motors is — the IPO. This isn’t an anti-business administration, is it?

KYL: I would contend that, for the last two years, it’s been highly anti-business. Some of the results that you just talked about, I suspect, are coming from the fact that we extended tax rates that the president did not want to extend, but was willing to do so at the end of the year last year.

HUNT: But, of course, all these things happened before that.

KYL: No, all these things are, I think, partially a – a result of the knowledge now that taxes are not going to be raised in the next two years.

What I expected was that, as the economy slowly improves over the next two years, Republicans would attempt to take credit because of their new majority in the House. What I didn't expect was that they'd try to take credit retroactively. Puh-leeze.

Happy Birthday Michelle!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Good Crazy

As we are celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I saw this short video online for the first time.

It reminded me of a great column by Ta Nahisi-Coats following the 2008 election. He was reflecting on the words of Rev. Joseph Lowery about Good Crazy.

"I came over here where crazy things are happening," Lowery told his audience, and then, referring to Obama and the echoes of his own history, added: "There are people in this country who say certain things can't happen, but who can tell? Who can tell? . . . Something crazy may happen in this country."...

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.

Certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged our shallow vision of the capacity of human beings in his speech, How Long? Not Long shortly after Bloody Sunday in Selma.

And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana. I must admit to you that there are still jail cells waiting for us, and dark and difficult moments. But if we will go on with the faith that nonviolence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all of these conditions.

And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.

And now Obama is asking us to come together as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

Many people on both the right and left of the political divide think that's "crazy."

But great men have always had great visions that seemed impossible to others.

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

- Robert Kennedy

It Takes More Than One

One of the local leaders that I've been following for awhile now is Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker. I first learned about Booker from reading an article by Matt Bai titled Is Obama the End of Black Politics? In it, he talked about the changing role of African American politicians in this country and featured stories about emerging Black politicians.

Cory Booker graduated from Stanford and was a Rhodes Scholar. He then went on to get a law degree from Yale and returned to Newark - initially to work in the non-profit world before becoming mayor. But he certainly has brought a fresh perspective to that job. For example, he's been the subject of 2 documentaries...Street Fight was about his first failed run for mayor against incumbent Sharpe James. The second, Brick City (which was actually a 5-part series on the Sundance Channel) chronicles his work as mayor to tackle violent crime in Newark along with the stories of several city residents. Many people have described this film as a cross between "West Wing" and "The Wire." Sundance has announced that a second season is scheduled to air beginning January 30th.

Booker has also mastered the new media with his use of youtube, facebook, and twitter. In fact, Sean Gregory recently called Booker The Mayor of Twitter and Blizzard Hero.

After a blizzard started blanketing the Northeast on Dec. 26, an event that earned the Twitter hashtag #snowpocalypse, Booker turned the microblogging site into a public-service tool. Residents of the city, which has a population of around 280,000, swarmed Booker's account (@CoryBooker) with requests for help, and the mayor responded. He and his staff have bounced around Newark shoveling streets and sending plows to areas where residents said they were still snowed in. "Just doug [sic] a car out on Springfield Ave and broke the cardinal rule: 'Lift with your Knees!!' I think I left part of my back back there," he reported in one message. One person let Booker know, via Twitter, that the snowy streets were preventing his sister from buying diapers. About an hour later, Booker was at the sister's door, diapers in hand.

And then there are the examples of things like engaging Conan O'Brien in a battle of words about Newark, getting Sarah Silverman to join his Night Patrol, and inspiring Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to Newark public schools.

Some of that might sound like a typical politician's PR blitz. But as Baratunde Thurston wrote at Jack and Jill Politics, it goes much deeper than that for Booker.

So much of Booker’s attraction is that he combines a lot of what we like to hear from a politician with the added benefit of leading by example. He’s not just “tough on crime.” He’s “smart about crime.” He doesn’t just ask for more from his citizens. He gives more to his city. I’m sure it’s not all roses in Cory Booker’s world, but I also find it hard to imagine that a person can fake this much sincerity.

It’s safe to say that Cory Booker is the most credible politician I’ve ever come across, and I’ll do my part to support his work, not just by talking about him but doing more myself. I hope his example and these words help you arrive at the same conclusion, not just in Newark, but wherever you live.

When someone asked the mayor how he keeps from feeling overwhelmed by the size of the problems facing his city, especially in a deep recession, he was ready with a response I think all of us can take to heart in every part of our lives:

"We allow our inability to do everything prevent us from doing something."

Of course, Cory Booker worked hard in 2008 for the election of Barack Obama. And when those efforts were successful, the White House asked Booker to join the administration and run the new Office of Urban Affairs. He turned it down.

"That job is not playing to my strengths," says the mayor while sitting on a couch in his city-hall office. It's closing in on 8 o'clock the night before the three-day July 4 weekend. He has just wrapped up a meeting with his police director and a conference call with the local electric company, but Booker, 40, doesn't know when to quit working. Or talking. Some politicians ramble on in paragraphs; Booker pontificates in pages. Chapters, even. "That's not playing to my sense of purpose," he says of the White House position. "And right now, I do believe, as immodest as it sounds, I'm the right guy at the right time for this city."

There's a man who knows his calling. If you want to know more about where that comes from, here's video of a speech he gave at the Aspen Institute titled "What Can You Do?."

Nationally, I know that a lot of us are counting on the leadership of President Obama during these difficult times. But it takes more than one. And I'm glad Cory Booker is out there following his calling to leadership too.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Valley

Liberals and Cynicism

I've seen evidence that Obama's speech this week has affected people - on both the right and left of the political spectrum. But as soon as you hear folks acknowledging that what he said has had an impact, they will most often follow that by saying "but it won't last."

Of course, they're right. And to feel the need to say that indicates an unrealistic view of change and how it happens. The vitriol in our political discourse will not be dealt with by one good speech. For some, it will spark a backlash. We've seen that from many on the right. And for others, its hard to change patterns of behavior. That will take time and practice.

I suppose its a good thing that people even want this kind of change to happen. But we're so infected with this idea of instant gratification, that we often get discouraged too easily and then become cynical.

Tim Wise wrote beautifully about this a while ago in an article titled The Threat of a Good Example: Reflections on Hope and Tenacity.

Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on "winning" the battle in which we're engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge.

Yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to remind folks that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that "victory," though sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you're always forced to mobilize to defend that which you've won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.

We are so caught up in a culture of competition that sometimes we can forget that very little of this kind of change comes with a "win" and miss the lessons of the struggle. I have a hard time with this myself. That's why for years my blogging sig line was this quote from Gandhi:

Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.

This is why its important to recognize Obama's long game and why he keeps reminding us that change is hard. Very often since his speech this week I've remembered this simple and yet profound poem.


To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

If each one of us could embrace the truth of those words, we would "be the change we want to see in the world."

What does it mean to be "an American?" Revisited

Over two years ago I wrote about Henry Cejudo and asked, "What does it mean to be an American?"

This week, I'm hoping that many others are asking that same question after hearing the blessing at the Tucson memorial service by Carlos Gonzales.

He opened his blessing, as he said, in the traditional way by introducing himself.

I am Carlos Gonzalez. On my mother's side, I am Mexican. A child of descendants of this valley, pioneer family from Mexico that came in the 1800s. On my father's side, I'm Yaqui. Refugees from Mexico that escaped the genocide in the Rio Yaqui in the 1800s.

We have been here -- for myself, I am fifth generation in the valley of Tucson.

Much of our teaching of history ignores the fact that white people first took over land that was populated by Mexicans. The Mexican-American War took place from 1846-1848 and resulted in the United States incorporating much of the territory formerly claimed by Mexico.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, by American diplomat Nicholas Trist and Mexican plenipotentiary representatives Luis G. Cuevas, Bernardo Couto, and Miguel Atristain, ended the war and gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border of the Rio Grande River, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

So whether we are talking about the values of family and opportunity expressed in the life of Henry Cejudo or the history of people like Carlos Gonzales, what it means to be an American certainly incorporates their story. They are wonderful examples of who it is we claim to be.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Unison Benediction by May Sarton

Return to the most human,
nothing less will nourish the torn spirit,
the bewildered heart,
the angry mind:
and from the ultimate duress,
pierced with the breath of anguish,
speak of love.

Return, return to the deep sources,
nothing less will teach the stiff hands a new way to serve,
to carve into our lives the forms of tenderness
and still that ancient necessary pain preserve.

Return to the most human,
nothing less will teach the angry spirit,
the bewildered heart;
the torn mind,
to accept the whole of its duress,
and pierced with anguish…
at last, act for love.

Father, Husband, President

From John Dickerson:

More than eloquence, the president also offered an argument, one he has been making for years. Aides say Obama stayed up all night working on the speech. We know that's his way. But the speech wasn't just the product of an all-nighter. It came from someone who thinks about children and the obligations of being a parent, who knows how it feels to be startled by your desperate love for a spouse whom you might have taken for granted in the rush of the day.

The president may not be emotional. But you can't write that speech if you're all ice water.

What do we want in a president? The office has become so misshapen it's hard to say what it doesn't encompass. Giving speeches isn't the entire job, of course. But if part of the job requirement is someone who reminds us that our public life can reflect our best private selves, then Obama showed that he is up to it. He has been thinking about that idea long before this tragedy called for a speech about it. The test for all of us is to do the same after the applause has died down.



A few changes

If there's anyone out there who has actually visited this blog more than once (lol), you'll notice that I have done some remodeling. Between being a bit of a change-junky and how easy they've made it to do this kind of thing, I expect that I'll get the bug to do it every now and then.

Also, I changed the comment settings a couple of weeks ago. Should make it a bit easier to talk back at me. So feel free to leave your thoughts.

And now...a little Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Obama's Speech and the Power of Story

After Barack Obama won the Iowa primary, there was a lot of talk about how he'd used his community organizing background to set up his winning ground game. I got curious about all of that and began to read almost everything I could about what that meant. I learned that a man by the name of Marshall Ganz, who had been involved with the Civil Rights Movement as well as with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, was responsible for Camp Obama. So I read everything I could about/by him.

One of the things Ganz talks about is the power of story. In fact, he uses Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention (video) as an example of how to use story to motivate action.

He explains that action requires breaking through the inertia of habit and that we do that by creating the tension between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. That tension can inspire despair or hope. How do we inspire the later instead of the former?

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.

Ganz then talks about the three elements of stories that lead to action:

1. The story of self

We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being, a faithful person. And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach. In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives.

2. The story of us

The second story is the story of us. That’s an answer to the question, Why are we called? What experiences and values do we share as a community that call us to what we are called to? What is it about our experience of faith, public life, the pain of the world, and the hopefulness of the world? It’s putting what we share into words.

3. The story of now

Finally, there’s the story of now-the fierce urgency of now. The story of now is realizing, after the sharing of values and aspirations, that the world out there is not as it ought to be. Instead, it is as it is. And that is a challenge to us. We need to appreciate the challenge and the conflict between the values by which we wish the world lived and the values by which it actually does. The difference between those two creates tension. It forces upon us consideration of a choice. What do we do about that? We’re called to answer that question in a spirit of hope.

As I reflected more on President Obama's speech in Tuscon, I realized that he was using this "power of story" to induce that tension in all of us between the way the world is and the way we want it to be.

But this time the story of self became the stories of the people we lost last weekend and the heroism many demonstrated that day. He told their stories beautifully. And then he made their stories - our stories.

For those who were harmed, those who were killed –- they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but surely we see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis –- she’s our mom or our grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law.

And in Gabby -- in Gabby, we see a reflection of our public-spiritedness; that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina -- in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example.

And with that, he was able to call on our better angels - the ones that we share with those we lost.

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations.

They believed -- they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here –- they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.

And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed.

He gave us back our hope in ourselves.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Grief...and a vision

While others were busy trying to tell us who is to blame, Obama shared our grief...and a vision of our better selves.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.


Via Balloon Juice.

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

- Barack Obama, January 12, 2011

Obama: Together We Thrive

I know most everyone has heard this speech by now and some of the text is below. But I want to place the video here. It was a moment - not of our political history - but our common human history. Joe Klein put it well.

His description of the victims was at the heart of it: Judge Roll went to mass every day. George and Dot Morris had a 50-year honeymoon. Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard lost their teenaged love and then regained it many years later. Phyllis Schneck sat quilting under her favorite tree. We all know them--and we know people like Daniel Hernandez, big and loyal and kindly, who would have stopped a bullet to save his boss, but saved her instead by tending to her wounds and begging her to hold on. Their ordinary decency, simply evoked, made the tragedy our own. Their simple nobility beggared the absurd screech of the debate surrounding this terrible event. His appreciation of their humanity was an appeciation of our own.

And in summoning the community and the nation and the Congresswoman that Christine Taylor Green imagined we are, he summoned for us the country that we should be.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Words that inspire us to be better

So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions – that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed – they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she’s our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.”

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch over the survivors. And may He bless the United States of America.

- Barack Obama, January 12, 2011

A poster worth a thousand words

Inspired by...Egypt

On New Year's Day a bomb exploded in a Coptic Church in Egypt killing 21 people and injuring 79. It also led to street violence between police and Coptic Christians. This is likely what the terrorists wanted, to heighten the divide between religious groups in the country.

But what was the response of the Muslim community in Egypt?

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”...

Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

I'm incredibly moved by a story like this and hope that we can be inspired in the United States of America by our Egyptian brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Faith by David Whyte

I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

Its all about fear

Over the last couple of days, we've seen a lot of talk about the debasement of our political discourse in this country. I wish we could have a reasoned discussion about that. But I'm not sure its happening...yet.

One of the things I've been thinking about is how our experience on 9/11 has affected all of this. I know that many feel that it was the election of Barack Obama as President that was the spark - and there's a lot of truth in that.

But it seems to me that we also took a wrong turn after 9/11 that is part of all of this. I know that in the aftermath of that day, I felt abandoned by the conversation I heard. Mostly I felt stuck in confusion and sadness while it seemed that the rest of the country had moved on to anger and revenge. I wanted some time to grieve and some answers about what would lead people to do this kind of thing. Most people wanted to see those who were responsible killed. The sense of fear and powerlessness was palpable. And so we not only attacked Afghanistan - we let ourselves be lied into a war with Iraq and justified the use of torture thinking that somehow it would help protect us.

In all of that was the implicit idea that we were afraid of our enemies and that ANYTHING we could do to eliminate them or stop them would make us safe. For too many people, that fear got fed emotionally rather than addressed. And so the feeling of powerlessness continues to lead us to think there are enemies out there that must be defeated or eliminated.

This is why I resonated so powerfully with that story from "The Interpreter" that ended with Vengeance is a lazy form of grief and George Orwell's connection of revenge and powerlessness on the day of the shooting in Arizona.

I also think that our politicians have over-sold their ability to protect us. Certainly they have a responsibility to do their best to prevent these kinds of things from happening. But we also have to grapple with this fear and the impermanent nature of our lives, as Mary Rose O'Reily said:

This country has puzzled me since 1960, when I belatedly began to think. Where did we get the idea that we are entitled to be pain free and worry free, that accidents must always be someone's fault, that all cancers should be gotten in time, that babies should be born flawless, and that death could be relegated to the back burner? What is the implicit idea about being human here?... Under the rock of every fear is the refusal to accept the contractual conditions of being human. I don't know why I came into the world or where I will go when I boil over on the back burner, but I know that I was born into a condition of radical instability...The only way to overcome fear is to accept without equivocation the worst it can propose, belay your ropes, and step across the next crevasse. We have no choice, anyway, about stepping.

Being driven by fear means that we tend to see our opponents as "enemies" and are therefore justified in de-humanizing them. We can do that with words and sometimes with violence. Our political culture has embraced this way of looking at things and its no surprise to many of us that people die as a result.

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...