Thursday, January 28, 2010

America Forward

I hate to kick a man when he’s up. The president’s State of the Union speech last night was exhilarating and touching. But…

This is what I was thinking before the speech:
What are they waiting for? Has the White House made all who enter tone deaf? The American people are screaming “jobs!” and the Democrats are only hearing “health care.” The people are imploring, “Talk to me!” and the president is scolding bankers and brokers. Americans are chanting “Now!” and Obama, Axelrod et al still have campaign huzzahs and hoopla ringing in their ears.

And why isn’t Rahm Emanuel screaming… anything?! (I’m listening for “Where’s the exit?”)

Now that I’ve heard the speech, my thoughts are:
If the race is not to the swift, is it to the slow to come around? I can’t see why not.

Clearly, President Obama was late coming out of the gate—so phlegmatically dilatory he had his visionary PACs shaking their heads and chomping at the bit to hedge their bets. That was going into the first turn. As all the front-runners he’s left in the dust know from the gritty taste in their mouths, Barack Obama’s a capital closer.

The real Barack Obama stood up last night. Stood up for the people who cling to their faith in his ability and resolve to make a difference. Stood up to the Party of No, the Supreme Court, and his own recalcitrant party.

Now that he’s spoken out, I know what he’s waiting for. For people to come to their senses. He can talk about listening to people in Elkhart, Indiana or Elyria, Ohio, but I believe he’s waiting for someone like the sobbing woman at an Arkansas town meeting who wants her America back to sober up and figure out what her America is or ever was. And waiting for many more like her.

Barack Obama is waiting, patiently, because Barack Obama is first and foremost, is and always will be what he supremely was, a community organizer. Not to recognize and grasp it is not to understand him. He learned how to bring people together and accomplish the seemingly impossible with little or usually no resources other than his own, namely, his brain, his soul and his remarkably indefatigable will. In Dreams of My Father, he tells of organizing a protest to present the problems and living conditions of people from a poverty- and crime-stricken Chicago slum to a Chicago municipal authority. Lacking faith in a system that had all but abandoned them, only two or three people from the neighborhood showed up to board the bus Obama has arranged, not easily, for the trip to downtown Chicago. Refusing to let it end there, he went around the neighborhood rounding up people, more than enough, to make a good showing. Wednesday night, he wasn’t exaggerating when he said, “I don’t quit.” He doesn’t.

I don’t want my America back, I want my America forward. My belief that my chosen president wants the same thing is restored. In my previous entry, I said, “I still believe in him. I have no choice.” Now I say: choice or otherwise, I believe in him.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Something's Bothering Me

Am I the only one waiting for the real Barack Obama to stand up? Not by a long shot, according to the long faces I talk to.

My mother used to say, “I’m not a mind-reader.” While I mulled that over, she would add, “If something hurts… or something’s bothering you, honey… tell me.” Her “tell” had a warm extra beat in it that made it easier for me to speak.

Mom isn’t here and I don’t know whom to open up to, but something’s bothering me—a lot these days. All the more so now that we have the results of the Massachusetts’ senatorial election and I have to live with a Republican’s rightful claim to the seat that Ted Kennedy occupied for 46 years.

I brought up my daughters in a similar, but blunter, fashion than my mom raised me. When either would hem and haw and say, “I don’t know whether I should tell you…,” I’d say, “When in doubt, spit it out.” They always did. Full of doubt today, I’m following my own dictum, starting with:

I don’t understand where the presidential hopeful formerly known as Change We Can Believe In disappeared to. The campaign trail’s great communicator has become the oval office’s stage whisperer. We charged his predecessor et al, the Bush-Cheney-Rove cabal we couldn’t believe in, or even believe, with paranoid, unwarranted, unethically excessive secrecy. What do we make of this Obama-Emanuel-Axelrod coterie? If they’re conspiring behind closed doors, what’s the plot? If they’re biding their time, what are they waiting for? I cling to my charitable notion that my chosen president is playing possum. But how long does a possum wait before he springs into action? A threatened possum is supposed to growl and raise his voice. This one, if (understandably) feeling threatened, is threatening to become Rip Van Winkle.

When I elect a president, I expect him to take office. Not the space, but the province, capacity, authority and performance. If he’s not prepared to govern, or is inclined to continue doing what he already excels at, gathering forces as he gathers force, let him keep running. If he wants to be a philosopher-king, he’ll be more at home on a mountain top than on Capitol Hill. I’d read and listen to him as I would heed the Dalai Lama. But I think this country requires a thinker who knows how to twist arms. Good intentions alone don't sway Joe Lieberman. FDR thought he could handle Stalin. Who has Obama handled?

How do we protect our presidents from their ivory towers? Will the real Barack Obama finally stand up? And if so, to what or to whom? He quickly became someone he wouldn’t recognize. In just one day short of one year from his inauguration day, the president has out-Cartered Jimmy Carter. Could anyone be that naïve? Could I?—I’m still waiting to see the White House strategy unveiled. Trigger-ready to say, “Ah, that’s what he was doing all along! There’s the genius of the community organizer, taking and building everything step by cautious step! How clever he is! And at his own expense, without regard for his image or the polls!”

But while I wait… and wait… my sanguine expectation buckles under the weight of the words of philosopher/theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Man is a messenger who forgot the message.” Has my chosen leader forgotten the message, the task, the objective? Has he become the establishment he campaigned against, specifically the embodiment of the anti-establishment voter’s bete noir?

The voters of Massachusetts aren’t any dumber than the voters of any other state in this country. In choosing against the incumbent Democrats and their agenda, not only have they voted primarily against national health care reform, but also, they have voted, astonishingly, for the status quo of ungodly bonuses, unconscionable greed, and unbridled further self-serving of establishment bankers and Wall Street brokers. Maybe 52% of the state’s voters are dumber.

Our most steadfastly Democratic state to all intents and purposes gave the country back to the people who left it in ruins. They opened the door to let the lunatics take over the asylum.

I still believe in Obama. I have no choice.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Holiday For Sale

They finally took down the Christmas tree in the courtyard of my building. Stripped it section by section of its pre-decorated modular branches whose silvery load lit up like Christmas when plugged into its trunk of steel. Erected and dismantled by a company named American Christmas (according to the corporate logo on the deep packing boxes the peculiar pieces of tree are stored in,) its crew coolly denuded and felled their towering corporate conifer and carted it away in grimly uniform 4’ x 6’ cardboard coffins. And as they dollied the goods toward the exit gates, the sun came out! Is that an allegory, and if so, for what—Easter?

We also had a giant metallic menorah in our courtyard, but there is no company called American Chanukah, or Sunbelt Shmaltz, or Prairie Dreidel. It took five burly American Christmas agents three hours to put the Christmas tree to rest, but the menorah’s demise was clandestine and sudden—a pre-dawn chrome pogrom?

Gnawing questions arise. Will we have the same un-fab pre-fab tree next year or will we have a refugee from another courtyard, annex or mall? Are we victim or beneficiary of the Environmental-Religious-Industrial complex? To keep up with the Joneses, will next year’s menorah feature the 12 Days of Chanukah?

With every season getting longer with every year—baseball in November, Christmas season starting in November before Thanksgiving Day, November elections starting the previous November (What’s with November?), it’s beginning to look a lot like we could divide every year into two parts—six months of Christmas and six months of professional sports’ playoffs.
Do you detect an encroaching viral strain of commercialism in all of this? Thanks to Fox television network’s proprietary interest in Major League Baseball, games 4, 5, and 6 of the 2009 World Series were played in—here’s that chilly month again—November. And a game 7 was by no means inconceivable. An “exceptional images” company sells Christmas ball tree decorations with a $ sign—or yen, pound or euro symbol—prominently emblazoned on them.

The Great American Pastime has already been sold to the highest bidder, (an Australian who thinks people like me who take issue with people like him should go back to where they came from, which in my case happens to be the United States). His eyes are on the enterprise. Pray he overlooks the sign on Santa’s lawn: Holiday For Sale.
They finally took down the Christmas tree in the courtyard of my building. Stripped it section by section of its pre-decorated modular branches whose silvery load lit up like Christmas when plugged into its trunk of steel. Erected and dismantled by a company named American Christmas (according to the corporate logo on the deep packing boxes the peculiar pieces of tree are stored in,) its crew coolly denuded and felled their towering corporate conifer and carted it away in grimly uniform 4’ x 6’ cardboard coffins. And as they dollied the goods toward the exit gates, the sun came out! Is that an allegory, and if so, for what—Easter?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"You're Going... I'm Staying"

The old man, an improbable El Al Airlines luggage security screener, was the first ever to ask me if I’d left my bags unattended at any time. I hesitated. I’d been in Istanbul getting a difficult story; I’d barely seen my hotel room or my luggage. He gently said, “You’re going… I’m staying.”

Only days earlier, in New York, the harrowing film account of an American interned and abused in a Turkish jail, “Midnight Express,” put the fear of God into me; with the taking of 52 American hostages, the Iranian Revolution put radical Islamic fundamentalism before the world’s eyes; and the Turkish military had already put itself in control of Turkey’s government. I’d been aggressive in getting my story, an ethnically sensitive one. Indicating the authentic “Midnight Express” prison to me, a poker-faced state functionary told me I’d asked too many questions and it was time for me to leave.

The old man waited for an answer. Mine was,“Check ‘em.”

El Al has set airline industry standards for security procedures. Every passenger is interviewed individually prior to boarding and can be questioned by as many as three different screeners, all of whom are extensively trained and skilled. They look and listen for evasive answers, withheld information, and anxiety or nervousness. Yes, they have profiling. Yes, they do have armed, plain-clothes sky marshals in passenger seats on every flight. And yes, I’m only scratching the surface of the precautions they take and omitting the technology they employ. El Al was the first airline to resume international flights out of New York after 9/11.

Prior to 9/11, I mischievously used to test the airlines’ security—not a game I would play today. In Moscow, I lifted a bulky suitcase around Domodedovo Airport’s X-ray scanner instead of passing the bag through it. A week later in Uzbekistan, pushing my luck, I hoisted the same suitcase around the scanner again at Tashkent International Airport. No one said a word in either instance and suitcase in hand, I boarded.

In Germany, I fought against passing a film (in a canister) through the metal detector or scanner, and won. Gracious in defeat, Lufthansa officials gave me a seat for it! I put up the same fight in Tel Aviv and was on the ropes when a wise official intervened and suggested I open the can and unspool the reel sufficiently for him to see that it was… film.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) blames President Obama for lacking focus on terrorism and for failing to appoint a head of the Transportation Security Administration. He’s the same Jim DeMint who was at the forefront of blocking a vote on the President’s nominee for the position, Erroll Southers! The logic apparently is: in times of terrorist threat, no head of the TSA is better than a President’s choice. In all fairness to Senator Jim, he suspects Southers would allow TSA employees to unionize. Jim Demented.

Wish Jim had been present at Los Angeles International Airport when I observed an Arabic-looking man in a nice suit and tie hand a package around the metal detector to a swarthy, poorly-dressed man who speeded out of sight. When I reported what I’d seen to TWA personnel at the boarding gate, they were at a loss for what to do. I had to insist on seeing a security guard, who also didn’t have a clue. I practically forced him to “do something.” We boarded and walked through the plane for my flight twice as I looked left and right, in vain, for my suspect. I was content he was not on my flight, but the security guard was too content—for me—that the man was not on somebody else’s. Fortunately, I didn’t read bad news about it.

Another time at the L.A. airport, a former Israeli intelligence agent carrying my suitcase walked with me past the scanner and through the gate without being asked to show the flight ticket he didn’t have… to the entrance ramp to my plane, set the case down and said, “You see, that’s how bad security is in this country.”

So, Senator, pay attention. While you fret over unionization, security in this country is so bad that a machine dispensing airline tickets is asking purchasers the same sensitive questions on a screen that trained security agents ask passengers in order to observe their reactions and determine possible threats! So naturally we have to ask: can a machine tell if a suspect is perspiring… his eyes shifting… her words faltering? Your words are nonsense, Senator, and like the airport machine, self-serving.