Monday, February 28, 2005

Such Different Realities: The Oscars, and...

What a yawn, huh, Bush? The Oscars. Did you watch? After weeks of hype and bated breath about what our supposedly volatile host, Chris Rock, might say to shock the country and the world, what a let-down! His insistently ethnocentric humor came across as faintly scolding, somewhat irritating, but surprisingly mild. Far from shocking, anyway.

The most interesting moment came when Rock showed us clips of quick, man-in-the-street interviews of real movie-goers at the Magic Johnson theaters, where the patent irrelevance of Hollywood and its self-congratulatory glamor was astoundingly—and subversively—revealed. Rock’s interviewees seemed virtually unaware of the main contenders for the Academy Awards, and certainly had not spent their movie dollars seeing them. Their picks for “Best Movies”—“White Chicks”, for example, and “The Chronicles of Riddick”—were a startling antidote to the much-touted Oscar nominations, and a healthy reminder that our society has powerful undercurrents of which the cultural orthodoxy is scarcely even aware.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked a lot of the nominated movies just fine. I liked a handful of them very much indeed. But I was reminded by Rock’s interview clips—as by the gala event itself—of the different, and sadly isolated realities in which the various segments of our society live. Hollywood, it’s clear—as if we needed the reminder—is a long, long way from South Central Los Angeles.

Oh, and Bush: please don't miss yesterday's entry, below. Much more important... to me at least.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Episcopalian Dilemma

As promised yesterday, Bush, this one is about fathers, church, gay marriage, tolerance… So let me begin by telling you a bit about my father. I may have mentioned before that he was an Anglican priest—that is, the British (parent) version of your Episcopal Church in America. (You’ll forgive me if I repeat myself from time to time, but I imagine you might have forgotten this detail by now anyway.) He was a devout Christian, but one who always struggled with his faith, and never stopped asking the hard questions; and who was always willing to change when he came up with different answers than the ones he had before.

I’ll tell you what I mean: when he started out, as a very young man, he was trained as a “high church” man. “High church” meant lots of ceremony. Robes, vestments, incense, altar cloths, candles, plainsong chanting, confession—the whole ball of wax. He loved that stuff with all his heart. They used to say the wider the dog collar, the more “low church” the wearer. My father always wore a very narrow one.

He wore that narrow collar until the day he died—at least whenever he dressed up in his robes of office. But in many other ways he heard a different message as the years went by, and he changed. Much of the high church ceremony went overboard when he heard a different message from parishioners who were “lower” than himself. He was the pastor of small parishes in the Midlands, where the congregations were more conservative, in the old sense of the word, more protestant in their suspicion of such wordly trappings, which they tended to associate with Roman Catholicism. Incense, for example, was completely out. The bereta—that little pointed clerical cap—was gone. And he sacrificed much of his love of ceremony in favor of the simplicity that they embraced.

More significantly, perhaps, he leaned more and more, in his later years, towards the ecumenical movement. He learned the wisdom of accomodation, joining others in the search for common ground between the diverse Christian practices. Throughout his life, too, he took the side of human justice, tolerance, and charity. As I remember it, charity was one of his favorite words, and one that recurred often in his sermons. Charity, that is, in its sense of caritas, a spiritual love, a caring for his fellow humans no matter what their standing in life.

I can’t resist adding that he had a sense of humor, too. He avoided that self-righteous kind of piety, the breast-beating variety. His humor could be directed not only at himself, but at the excesses of religion. I remember him telling me of his undergraduate days, in the 1920s, when the fundamentalist Oxford movement was in full swing: adherents at his own university were naïve enough to dub themselves the Cambridge University New Testament Society, and to send flyers all over town to announce their activities—to the derision of their fellow students—with their acronym in bold letters at the top. (Sorry, Bush, propriety requires that I leave you to work that one out for yourself. Hint: the acronym is the aggregate of initial letters in a nomenclature, such as, for example, U.S.A.)

All of which brings me back—finally!—to the question I started out to ask: what would my father say about the brouhaha in the world-wide Anglican Communion over the appointment of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, and the increasing tolerance in the North American Episcopal church toward homosexuality? In Canada, for example, I hear that one diocese is proposing a liturgy dedicated to same-sex marriages. If you can imagine!

Now leaders of the Anglican Communion, I read in Saturday’s New York Times, have requested the Episcopal Church, USA, to withdraw its official representatives from their conference, in order to avoid a potentially divisive confrontation. The report suggested that everyone concerned was rather pleased with this solution, but I myself found it sadly evasive.

So what would my father say? He nursed no condemnation of homosexuals, to my knowledge. He had, in fact, many good friends in the gay community—though it was hardly a “gay community” in his day: gay men were outcasts, objects of loathing, ridicule or, at best, pity, and beyond the pale of the law; gay women, scarcely heard of. And yet my father did nothing to deter my friendship, as a teenager, with an openly gay couple who lived in the shadow of the church belltower in one of his villages.

He did warn me once, improperly, I assume, when the local police had tipped him off that the “vicar’s son”—myself, at about sixteen—had been seen entering and leaving the residence, in another or his parishes, of a man who was under observation and investigation for the then criminal activity of engaging in sex with other men. It was not, I think, with my father’s approval of the police activity, but more as a way of keeping me out of trouble with the constabulary. (In case you’re wondering, Bush, I was innocent: I’d experienced far more in the way of male-male sexual contact at my upright, heavily Anglican boarding school than at this genuinely nice man’s home. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, bottom line, were he alive today, I like to believe my father would be firmly on the side of tolerance. He would be questioning the tenets of his faith, and struggling with the teachings of his church. But he would be capable, in the end, of recognizing his shared humanity with the victims of discrimination. He would surely want to see them included in the embrace of "Mother Church", as he sometimes called her, not excluded. He would preach from his pulpit, one more time, about the need for caritas. He was that kind of a man.

About Tomorrow...

I wrote today’s entry yesterday, Bush, but it turned out to be longer than expected, and I got lazy this morning. So decided to postpone the typing out (I almost always write first in longhand) and postring until tomorrow. I don’t suppose you’ll be too disappointed, since this is Sunday, after all, and you’ll have better things to do. Well, other things. But I do hope very much that you’ll check in with me tomorrow. The entry is just up your alley: it’s all about fathers, and religion, and the church, and gay marriage, and tolerance. I know that you’ll enjoy it. And for today… well, I beg forgiveness for my laziness. Have a good Sunday, and my best to Laura.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Two Men, Part Two

There’s something very unpleasant about complacency, Bush. There’s something very unpleasant about boasting. It comes out of a sense of insecurity about oneself, and a simultaneous need to make the other man feel inferior—and look bad in front of others. I saw you do it in your press conference with Putin, and it wasn’t a noble sight.

“I live in a transparent country,” you told him—indirectly, because this purported to be an answer to a journalist, but it was addressed to Putin—“where decisions made by government are wide open, and people are able to call people—me—to account.” It was a blatant, smug attempt to preach to your diplomatic partner, Bush, in front of the entire world; a blatant attempt to humiliate him, while boosting your own image. To teach him a lesson in democracy. He may need the lesson, but was it your place to offer ir, in that way?

The trouble with boasting is that it usually reveals our own weakness as much as the other man’s. And what you said only drew attention to your own failings in precisely that same area. Because what you said, Bush, was patently untrue. It may be the ideal to which you’d like to strive, and in which you’d like the rest of us to believe. But there are simply too many examples that deny your claim.

Let me suggest a few: the most glaringly non-transparent action of your administration to date, at least to my mind, remains the Cheney energy gambit, early in your presidency, about which your Vice-President has steadfastly refused to allow even the names of those attending to be known, let alone the tenor and the outcome of discussion that led, presumably, to this country’s energy policy—whatever that may be.

Transparency, Bush? It sounds like a bad joke. Equally opaque are many of the decisions you and your people have made regarding the imprisonment of those deemed, for reasons undisclosed even to those subjected to this treatment, to be terrorists. As for other examples of your assault on transparency in government, I invite you to consider the overview of the Government Reform Committee’s report of September 14, 2004. It’s a shameful list, Bush. “The Bush administration,” the report concludes, “has systematically sought to limit disclosure of government records, while expanding its authority to operate in secret. Taken together, the administration’s actions represent an unparalleled assault on the principle of open government.”

Ouch! As for accountability, we need only to look to your Rumsfeld, whose planning and conduct of the war has proved a disaster from beginning to end—or rather, to the lack thereof; and whose policies, whether stated or implicit, on the treatment of prisoners exposed to the world the hypocrisy of this country which so freely preaches human freedom and human rights while itself practicing inhuman treatment of its prisoners. Has he been “called to account”, Bush? On the contrary, he has been given your accolades for doing “a superb job.” And your Gonzales, author of the infamous memo opening the door to torture? “Called to account”? No. Promoted to the highest law authority in the land.

By the same token, who has been called to account for the lies and distortions laid upon the American people by your Rice, your Cheney, your Wolfowitz, and countless others—including your good self—to justify your invasion of Iraq? Not a single soul, Bush. Who has been called to account for the outing of Valerie Plame? For the absurdly underestimated costs of the war? For the budget overruns? The staggering growth in the deficit? The sale of your medication bill for the elderly on the basis of patently low-balled cost estimates?

No-one, no-one, and no-one. It’s all been about deception, sleight of hand, passing the buck, pointing fingers… Open government, as we used to say in England, my foot! Transparency? You’ve got to be kidding. No wonder Putin stood there, stone-faced, while you lectured him. If I were him, I’d have been tempted to throw the podium at you, Bush.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Body Language: Get Naked

So there we were again, Bush. The George and Vladimir show. I imagine you looked into his eyes and checked in on his soul, as you did the last time around. So I’m anxious to know what you saw there, this time? Something a little darker than four years ago? Did you catch a glimpse of the tyrant behind the mask of the benevolent democratic leader? The one who shuts down the media, chucks businessmen in jail, and throws his weight around in distant territories?

Here’s what I saw, Bush, just watching you both on the television screen. I saw two men heavily armored, against each other and against the world. Two men and their shadows. I saw one man acting out the guise of friendship, half-turning, half-smiling, half-gesturing toward the other. Then snatching it all back, in case he’d gone too far. I saw the other man ramrod straight, unsmiling, uncomfortable to be there, holding it all together with iron control.

Here’s what I saw your body say, Bush. It said, Please love me, please admire me, I’m not such a bad fellow after all. It said, this is a hard job, I’m doing the best I can, believe me. This is important. It said, also, I’d touch you if I dared, but I know that would be going too far. I know I’d burn if I reached out for you. It said, I know you think you’re right, but I know that I am. Don’t I? It said, if people really knew what was going on inside, I’d lose it all.

And Vladimir’s? His body was one whole big fuck-you. I mean, excuse the language, Bush, but let’s for once be men together, okay? It said, get out of my face. It said, I’m standing here listening to your crap because I have to, not because I want to. It said, you’re pathetic, Bush. You just don’t understand the realities of the world. You don’t understand my country and its history. You don’t understand the need for an iron hand. That’s what I am, Bush. I’m iron, through and through, and nothing you say or do will get to me. Let’s get this over with, and get back to our own business.

This is how men are together. The speak the truth unconsciously, not with their words--which often lie--but with their bodies, which can't. And they understand each other in that realm beyond the words. In view of which, I have a modest propsal, Bush. Next time around, they should make you both get naked—I mean stark, balls-out naked—and have you wrestle right there on the ground before you say a word. A friendly match. Not to win, but simply to test out strengths and weaknesses in the most physical way. To understand the attraction as well as the aggression. To take true measure of each other.

That way, you both get honest, you get intimate, you have nothing more to hide. Instead of looking into Valdimir’s eyes and pretending that you know his soul, you get to know his body, and he, yours. No more of this ridiculous posturing, and protocol, and diplomatic etiquette. No more of this toxic competition to show who’s stronger than the other. You speak to each other in terms that you can’t help but understand. Once that’s done, you can begin to talk, and trust each other, without dissembling, man to man. You get the men’s stuff out of the way, and talk to each other like real human beings.

How’s that for an idea, Bush? Not a hope, I guess. Still, I thought I’d just put it out there. Oh, and by the way, welcome home.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Dirty War, Dirty Bomb: A Scary Movie

I'm sure you didn't catch this on the television last night, Bush, because you were probably on your way to visit your old pal Vladimir Putin (how's that going, by the way?) But the BBC/HBO production of the drama "Dirty War" was an absolute stunner, and an eye-opener to boot. I trust your people will have you see it. I trust more people will get to see it than the relatively small audience on PBS, where it was aired. If it were up to me, I'd have the whole country see it. Because what it shows is vital knowledge for everyone in today's dangerous world.

The plot? A network of terrorist cells plots a dirty bomb attack in Central London. The intelligence system makes frantic efforts, but fails to foil the plot. The bomb explodes. A second bomb team, set to follow the first, is located and killed. Too late. Many people are killed, many more injured, and many, many more contaminated by radiation. Several square miles in the center of the city have to be quarantined for thirty years at a minimum. Businesses are ruined. Lives destroyed. A number of the terrorists are captured. Again, too late.

It's a film about preparedness, Bush. The terrorist cells prepare with terrifying and meticulous efficiency. They're in no hurry. Their time will come. The authorities stage hopelessly inadequate scenarios. They fail to provide the adequate resources. They squabble amongst each other. They play politics. They lose. The City of London loses. The people lose.

It's a scary movie, Bush. And utterly convincing. We believe it that the terrorists have access to the materials they need. We believe their unswerving motivation. We believe their deadly efficiency. We believe they can succeed. We believe the inadequacy of the disaster services in the aftermath: how to provide decontamination facilities for tens of thousands of panicked people, and contain them from breaking out from the immediate area and taking their contamination home with them.

The airing was followed by a panel discussion amongst distinguished and authoritative panelists, and by intelligent, thoughtful audience questions. The highlights: here in the U.S., we need to assure the proper allocation of resources, with nationally accredited experts to assure that they not wasted or misspent. We need to create an intelligence system better prepared to provide prevention. We need an increased awareness in the public at large, so that the response to any future catastrophe can be active rather than reactive. We need more operational funds, better equipment for first-response teams, more trained personnel. We need a health care system equipped to deal with a large scale emergency. What has been done to date is clearly not an adequate response to the threat.

Despite what you often like to say, the world seems to me a whole lot less safe today than it was in the Cold War era, Bush. Back then, the number of folks who could pull off an act like the one in "Dirty War" was limited and controlled. The fingers on the trigger were easily identifiable and few in number. Today, it seems, we are surrounded by anonymous enemies, with the power to do inestimable damage. And these enemies have multiplied exponentially under your watch. You may be, as you have famously said, a "war president". The question is, to what extent you yourself have caused the extension of the war you want to defend us from. How many more implacable and nameless terrorists have you helped create, throughout the world, with your invasion and occupation of Iraq?

A reader who would, I'm sure, prefer to remain unnamed came up with an interesting metaphor. "It's Bush," she said, "who is the dirty bomb." And, given the alarming spread of toxins in the world in the years of your presidency, I'm afraid there's an awful grain of truth in her perception.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A Cancer on the Presidency?

(Not sure that I'll get to writing a real entry for the day, Bush. I have my annual physical scheduled for the morning hours. Wish me luck! And later in the day, weather permitting, we're headed out of town for a longer-than-usual weekend at our beach retreat. If anything brilliant occurs, plus the time to devote to it, I'll be in touch. But I'm sure you're busy anyway, so you won't miss much if I skip one day. Take care.)

But then... Well, after all... Later:

I want to ask you a favor this morning, Bush. I want to ask you to join, and put your weight behind Democratic Senator Dick Durbin's effort to have the whole Gannon/Guckert episode fully investigated.

Too much to ask? After all--unless you knew all along that the man was an extremist right-wing shill--I imagine you have to be as appalled as I am that he managed to get credentialed to join the White House press corps, or at least to attend your press conferences. I mean, the man could equally well have been an assassin, no? Let's face it, if your people let him through the door in full knowledge of who he was--an unqualified hack whose sexual preferences seem to have been considerably more dubious even than your predecessor's--they are surely serving you ill and should therefore be identified with all due haste and summarily fired.

On the other hand, if they credentialed this man in ignorance, then they failed miserably in their duty to properly vet people granted access to the White House--and your august proximity--and should still, for this reason, be identified with all due haste and summarily fired. No? Are these the same folks, I wonder, who led you wrong in your nomination of Bernie Kerick as chief of Homeland Security (the title of that department still gives me the willies, Bush)? Do they not know their responsibility, or care? Or are they cynical enough to think that we, out here in America-land, don't care? Perhaps the most dreadful thing of all is that they may be right.

Anyway, Bush, I think you'd not only be doing me the favor that I ask, but also doing one for yourself. Think how refreshing it would be for the American public to hear their President say, in anger: this was an unforgivable mistake. This is unacceptable. This is not how I want my White House to be represented to the country and the world. I want to find out who's responsible for this disaster, and heads will roll. How much respect you'd gather for that kind of openness and righteous anger, Bush!

Not likely, though, given your history. There are many of us out here who continue to be angered by the sheer incompetence of many in your administration, high and low (hint: think Defense Department), and are still waiting for those deserving heads to roll. For you to hold someone actually accountable for something. Taken together with other recent instances of the disappearing distinction between honest press and propaganda, this could develop into a cancer on your presidency. Remember John Dean's warning to President Richard Nixon on an apparent triviality, and take heed.

Oh, and one more thing, on a related topic: I haven't noticed any color changes in the Homeland Security alert system of late. Forgive my own cynicism, but is this because the election is now safely over? For you, at least. Or have the terrorists ceased chattering?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A Note to Readers...

Please take note, and support this effort to assure a full investigation of the Gannon/Guckert affair. Email or call your senator to urge their support. Thanks, PeterAtLarge (PAL)


I sit here today in just plain anger, Bush. I sat through my morning meditation and watched it rise, and rise, and rise… It would not stop. I felt it taking charge of my entire body. I watched myself attempting to contain it, just by sitting there and watching it, and breathing, and allowing it to pass, as it usually does. It wouldn't this morning, though. It just went on rising, and I went on watching. I still sit with it now.

The anger has two proximate causes. Triggers, really. "Causes" sounds too deeply rooted in the psyche to be relevant here. The first trigger, then, was watching you on last night's television news, all smug and smirking, as you spoke before the assembled European community, pontificating about things like transatlantic unity, and democracy, and peace, and freedom, when everything you have done as President of the United States amounts to an assault on those very same values. I was angered by your Rice, who sat there nodding sagely at your side, all attentive and adoring in her familiar helmet.

Because, Bush, it's my judgment that you have no right to be there. It's my judgment that you are an imposter, unprepared for a position you usurped by guile and by deceit; that you are unqualified by character, or intellect, or knowledge, or experience, or breadth of human understanding to be the President of the World.
Which brings me to the second proximate trigger for my anger. Last night, after watching you on the television news, I tuned in to a documentary on the Sundance network--a documentary entitled, aptly, "Bush's Brain." It was the story of your Rove, and his Machiavellian machinations to elevate you, first to the governorship of Texas, then to the Presidency of the United States. It was a story of outright cheating, lies, deceit--anything it took to destroy opponents and clear the field for your incompetence. It was the destruction of Ann Richards, on your way to the Texas Governor's mansion, and of John Mccain on your way to the White House. (Ellie wondered aloud, giving voice to my thoughts, how Mccain could have come back to support you, after your deplorable attack on his war service to this country, and your scurrilous, heartless rumor-mongering about his black, adopted "love child"--as you people had the boundless, reckless temerity to suggest.) It was the story, too, of the crushing of Max Cleland in your ruthless pursuit of even greater Republican power when you were already in the White House.

I'm sorry, Bush, but I judge your Rove to be despicable, and your reliance on this despicable character to achieve your ends to be equally despicable. You'll probably tell me that I'm politically naïve: too true, but I wear that as a badge of honor, not the reverse. You'll tell me that this is all past history, no point in rehashing it now, that the time has passed for crying over spilt milk, it's time to mend fences, forgive and forget… all those old cliches. Everything that you're telling the Europeans in your speeches there.

Speaking for myself, I just can’t do it, Bush. Maybe politicians can, for the sake of practical necessity. Maybe diplomats and world leaders can, recognizing that they have no other choice. But that doesn't mean that I have to, Bush. And I choose not to. At moments such as these, when the anger rises, I find myself seething with rage at what you have done in the world, and in this country, and what you continue to do with the trust that you have failed to earn. I choose to remain your implacable opponent. I choose to disbelieve you, and your motives. I choose to distrust your words, because they have so often failed to mesh with the truth, or with the deeds that follow them. I choose to mistrust your leadership. I choose to continue in my anger.

There. That's it for today, Bush. Sorry to intrude on your moment of apparent European glory. But sometimes the anger just rises, and needs to be expressed.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Peter... and Paul

Yesterday morning, Bush, Ellie and I went down to the beach to say goodbye to a friend. Well, not really a friend, in truth, since we did not know him very well; he was one of those people with whom you feel a kinship, even when you don't see very much of them. I think that quality makes him--made him--a vulnerable and open man. A man who had known suffering in his life, and for that reason had an especially human quality.

His name was Peter, too, and I feel a particular affinity for all men who share my name--a name whose meanings and associations I have explored in great depth elsewhere in my writing. This Peter was 56, and gay. He left us by choice. Well, the friends who found him, the day after Christmas, insist that this time it was not by choice: he had attempted suicide several times before, they say, and each time with great attendant ritual and ceremony. This time, there was no ceremony. Only death. On the floor of his beautiful beach cottage, whose neat front lawn and white picket fence we pass almost every day. The cause, apparently, was a mix of alcohol and pills. A curious irony, when you think of it: that he pulled off this time, unconsciously, what he had failed to achieve consciously a number of times before.

So many strikes against this Peter, then, from the right-eous Christian point of view. A gay man. Addicted to alcohol and drugs. A suicide… And yet a human being, loved and loving. The kind of man I wish you, Bush, could have known. With open hearts, we all could learn from him.

Anyway, it was a very moving farewell. There were just a handful of us on the cliff, overlooking the ocean at the bottom of the hill where Peter lived. His close friends had brought fragrant leis of fresh flowers, orchids, and were wearing them around their necks. When the time came, they took them off and passed them to a young woman in a wet suit, who placed them around her own neck and ran off down the stairway with her surf board to the water's edge. Then she paddled out a hundred yards into the ocean, past the breakers, removed the leis, and laid them on the surface of the waves before heading back to shore.

The experience left me thinking, in my morning meditation, about those qualities of openness and vulnerability, Bush. About my wish for you, now, on your trip to Europe, that you not be totally contained within your protective bubble. You know what I'm talking about. I understand the need for security, but it protects you not only from the bad stuff that could happen, but also from the important stuff that you need to experience for the breadth of your own vision. I remember how they isolated you, during last year's election, even in your so-called "town hall" meetings, from anything untoward--including adverse opinions. With the result that you act, in your second term in office, as though you simply fail to understand the depth and breadth of opposition to almost everything you say and do, the passionate intensity of those who disagree.

My wish for you is to be more like Peter and less like Paul. More like the fallible Peter, and less like the intransigent, proselytizing convert Paul. But you've read your Bible, Bush. You know what I mean.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


I gather you're off to Europe today, Bush. Mending fences. There's a page of brief words of advice from European journalists in today's New York Times. I guess if I were to offer something, it would be one word: listen. I mean, of course, to someone other than God, who regrettably doesn't always seem to offer the best advice, from the purely human point of view. But this is the sign of respect I believe they're looking for from you, from us… I hope you're up for this tough task, in your second term. No one thought you did much of it in your first. Anyway, have a great trip. Good luck. And don't forget to check in once in a while.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Bound and Gagged

Did you read my entry yesterday, Bush, about the power and the necessity of cultural heritage? I hope you did. Last night, with my wife, Ellie, I went to an exhibition in the Natural History Museum downtown, where artists had been let loose in the basement to pick out objects that somehow spoke to their particular sensibility. Ed Moses, a noted painter, had found a stash of carved figures from Papua, New Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo, and brought them out, caged, as he had discovered them, for storage, and "Bound and Gagged"--his title--to restrain them, for their protection, from any untoward motion that could damage them. Setting them up in the center of the exhibition space under stark museum lighting, he let them speak, finally, for themselves. I'm sure each one of there heard a different story, but here's what I heard them say:

Bound and Gagged

They stand there, gazing
out at us balefully, from behind
their enclosure of wooden struts
and chicken wire, bound and gagged
by the ties that hold them carefully
in place, two dozen of them,
more perhaps, erect and naked,
proud, aloof under stark prison lights;
all of them strangely human, some tall,
some short, some male, with long,
hard dongs, some female, with their
pendulous breasts; some decorated
here and there with fading paint,
or spare, ritual objects; spirits
of gods awaiting their release.

Ceremonial, these carved figures
from the wisdom of the still living
ancient mind (from Papua, New Guinea,
the Ivory Coast, the Congo) have been
held captive here, in what we call
our world, standing for decades
in the museum basement, unattended,
their power unspoken, their magic
mute. And now, brought out
to stand among us in their silent rows,
they are still regal in their presence,
still commanding in the way
the gods command, unquestioned.

And in that presence, my mind
turns to those other prisoners
of ours, today, those men
and women held in Guantanamo,
in Abu Ghraib, of ancient heritage,
and fierce, and proud in their own way,
and locked away, unheard, beyond
the reach of law or justice; we fear
that ancient, ruthless power
with which we invest those different
from ourselves, and keep them
in the basement of our lives, bound
and gagged, awaiting the timeless call
of a destiny beyond our comprehension.

For this is what we do,
in our clean world of living rooms,
and televisions, and flush toilets;
it's what what we do to those
we do not understand, and those
we fear, and those who threaten us,
guardians of the dark gates between
sanity and madness, our dream
and the nightmare of that dark,
chaotic underworld whose power
we barely dare to sense. And so
we cage them in, we lock them
in our basement; and, on fit occasion,
we bring them out to gaze back
at their ritual, barbaric forms,
discomforted by who they are
and what we do to tame them.
They show us more about ourselves
than we would ever care to know.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Lest we forget...

Thirty more people killed in a mosque explosion in Iraq today, Bush. I notice how your war has slipped below the headlines. The media has other troughs to feed at, I suppose. Your Negroponte, your Social Security plot… How easily we get distracted from what's really going on. But I was thinking about your war last night as I watched a program on the History Channel. (Do you watch it, Bush?) I get hooked especially on anything to do with World War II, because that's my childhood, Bush, right there. I was living within sixty miles of London during the Blitz, as I think I mentioned in an earlier entry in this diary, and we used to get streams of terrified refugees coming out by the busload, spending the night in blanketed rows in our coal cellar alongside the shelves of potatoes and apples. I remember, when the air raid sirens went, we'd have to go down there and join them, and the fear was palpable and rank.

Anyway, that's a bit beside the point. The program I was watching had to do with the end of the fighting in Europe, and its aftermath, and I couldn't help but think about Iraq. Did you know that Eisenhower set up a whole special army brigade to find and protect lost cultural treasures from the ravages of the war? The project was called "Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives"--or MFAA--and the officers involved were charged with locating and protecting anything connected with the continent's cultural heritage from both enemies and friends. Eisenhower wrote that this represented "all that we are fighting to preserve," and insisted on its careful preservation.

So my thoughts went, of course, to the aftermath of your adventure in Iraq, particularly, at first, to the absence of any planning for the protection of institutions and administrative archives after the fall of Baghdad. I remembered particularly the fate of the national museum, and the scene of looters walking in and carrying off the country's cultural wealth with absolute impunity. I remembered the shots of government offices left in ruins, stripped of valuable historical and archival information. All this because you, Bush, had listened to your arrogant (and civilian) Rumsfeld rather than your generals, who knew what to expect; and because you failed to send in sufficient troops to provide even the scantiest protection for what Eisenhower rightly called "all that we are fighting to preserve". That's not just some abstract idea of liberty and democracy, Bushm but the living heritage and traditions, the life-blood of a country's organization and its spirit. And look what followed this oversight. I can't help but think there would have been less chaos during the occupation, less death and destruction, had more troops been on the ground to protect that civil life, as they were in Europe all those years ago.

Which brings me back to the thirty people killed in the mosque today. Because the mosque, more than anything, is surely at the heart of that devastated country's cultural heritage, both as the spiritual core and the embodiment of the history of Iraqi art and architecture. From the beginning of this misadventure, we have failed to understand, let alone respect, the power and the potential divisions in the religious life of the country. We have stepped not simply into a political and legal morass of international proportions, but a cultural one as well. And whether we know it or not, our culture runs deeper in the veins than any other institution.

How good to be reminded that Eisenhower understood this, even in his capacity as a military leader. How sad that this understanding seems to have been forgotten by your administration today. A bunch of Philistines, Bush. And more's the pity.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Boys... and this one boy

I hear your Laura has been getting interested in the way our culture treats its boys, Bush. Good for her. It's an issue that constantly crops up in those mens' weekends I've been telling you about. As a society, we have this obsession with male toughness, and we train our boys from an early age that to face the world with strength they have to compete, they have to excel; they have particularly to supress all their emotions--particularly their fear, and pain, and anger. They learn to stuff these things down inside, where they fester, and all too often explode.

So my attention was grabbed yesterday on the television news, Bush, by the image of the prosecutor in the Christopher Pittman murder trial, down there in South Carolina. The case has been picked up eagerly by the media because of what they tagged "the Zoloft defense" (shades of the old Twinkie defense in San Francisco, no? Don't they love those easy tag-lines?) which claimed that the defendant, 15 years old, had been acting under the influence of that drug when he shot-gunned both his grandparents to death in their sleep.

Here's the image that got to me: the prosecutor, in his summary before the jury, pointing a shotgun at a mannequin and narrating the incident as he saw it, with venom heavily emphasized as he reenacted how the boy--then 12 years old--pointed the gun at his sleeping grandfather and (with great drama) "shot him… IN… THE… MOUTH."

A foul deed, Bush, by any standard. And brutal. Granted. But what I responded to--and I suspect the jury, too--was the anger and hatred this attorney projected on the boy he was accusing. Even from the seconds-long clip I saw, this was no rational, lawyerly argument appealing to the jury's intelligence and common sense. This was a raw appeal to their emotions, an intense and bitter call for pitiless revenge. I was frankly stunned by the rage with which it was delivered.

Perhaps this is the task of a prosecutor. Vengeance. I don't know. I don't claim to know much about criminal prosecution. But this was a grown man, a trained legal mind, summoning all his considerable power to ensure the condemnation of a boy. A boy who was twelve years old at the time of the crime--and we know that the physical brain structure of children of that age is not the same as that of an adult, that there are certain faculties it simply has not yet developed. This particular boy, too, had been abandoned by his mother at an early age, and had a poisonous relationship with his father. Punished, not too long before, for bad grades at school, he had armed himself with a kitchen knife and attempted suicide when captured by the authorities; had been administered mind-altering chemicals to settle him down, and sent by an abdicating father to live with his grandparents; he had been "hearing voices", and before the crime had already shown violent responses in resisting discipline from them.

Okay, Bush, I know the argument: you can't blame all the bad things you do on your sad history. You have to take responsibility for your actions. I know all that. And don't get me wrong, it's not that I condone or excuse the boy's behavior. Not in any way. He is clearly in desperate need of a strong adult hand, and of some kind of societal rebuke and correction. But this is a CHILD, Bush! Twelve years old at the time of the murders; a mere fifteen when brought to trial as an adult. Did he deserve these bully tactics from a prosecutor hell-bent on conviction? To have this kind of merciless venom spewed on him? Did he deserve to be sentenced to thirty years in jail? Thirty years! And there were those who would have eagerly applied the death penalty.

So tell me, Bush, what kind of a nation are we, that acts with such vengefulness against our children--even those who have committed heinous acts? Is this the "compassion" that you like to talk about? Is this an administration of justice that we can be proud of? I say no. Even his surviving grandparents, the in-laws of his victims, said no. They said, had they been the victims, they're sure their surviving in-laws would have said the same about their killer: No. This is not justice. This is no more nor less than vengeance. It can also be seen, when you pause to reflect on its broader meaning, as a dreadful indictment of the way we rear our sons.

You talk a lot about the values of our society, Bush. And I suppose, if you base your values on a literal interpretation of the Bible, this kind of vengeance might seem appropriate. An eye for an eye. But don't forget, Bush, what the Lord in that same Bible sayeth: Vengeance is mine. I myself was taught to understand those words to mean that vengeance is too terrible a power to be entrusted to all-too-fallible humans.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Gates

I suppose you get up to New York City once in a while, Bush? I have to say, I don't quite see you strolling in Central Park with your dog and your secret service patrol, but I'd love to have been there this week to see the latest installment of the Christo/Jeanne-Claude ouevre. Perhaps you heard about The Gates? Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been collaborating on huge public art works for years--always free, always open to anyone who wishes to participate, and always (you'll appreciate this, Bush!) funded entirely by the sale of Christo's drawings. They never apply for or accept a penny of public funds. The works are always ephemeral, too. The artists impose their vision on the landscape or the cityscape for only a brief period of time. Then they're gone, existing only in memory, or in the multiple drawings and photographs that remain, as documentation of the event.

If you haven't heard of their work, Bush, you might want to check out their Running Fence on the Northern California coast? Or, if not, surely the eleven (count 'em!) Surrounded Islands off the Miami coast with their collars of flamingo pink woven polypropylene fabric. Or perhaps the famous Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, or the Umbrellas spanning the Pacific Ocean, from the spectacular yellow outcropping on the barren Southern California hills, to the massed blue ones in the fertile rice paddies in Japan. I was fortunate enough to see them in both locations, and was thrilled by their sheer, outrageous beauty.

I'll be sorry to miss the Central Park Gates, but the airfare and hotel would be quite an entry fee from here. However, the pictures I've seen look stunning--a passageway of saffron fabric shifting easily in the breeze, with hundreds of visitors enjoying the parade. So I was quite surprised by the animosity of some of the letters in today's New York Times. One outraged New Yorker complains of the "desecration of a sanctuary, a nauseating display of egocentrism"--I do seem to remember that Picasso had something of an ego, too, along with quite a number of other impressively creative minds--"and an unabashed disregard for the cherished respect of nature so assiduously attended to by the workers of Central Park." Phew! I guess the writer of that one is angry, Bush. And while I say she's entitled to her anger (who isn't? It's a spontaneous human feeling that arrives without particular invitation), I kind of wish it were mixed with a little sense of humor and perspective.

There are critics of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work, to be sure. There are those, like the writer cited above, who accuse them of grandstanding, of imposing on public space, of mistaking the grand gesture for art. There are those who accuse them of abusing the natural environment, suggesting that the Running Fence, for example, could cause severe disruption in the territorial imperatives or the mating habits of local birds. And so on. There are serious critics who do not admire their work for arguable aesthetic reasons. And yet… well, Bush, it is wonderfully joyful work, as you'd see for yourself if you could find the time to make that little trip up to New York. It's fun. It challenges stodgy bureaucracies and received ideas, often taking years to transform what seemed like an impossible dream into actuality. It questions historical assumptions, and is capable, too, of laughing at itself. And for those who do not like it, they can take satisfaction in the knowledge that it will go away.

Anyway, Bush, I thought we deserved a little diversion today from serious affairs of state and global threats. I trust you'll take the time to click on a couple of the links and enjoy the playful inventiveness of these artists' minds.

Got Gas?

A post script to this past weekend this morning, Bush. Plus a little more. First off, I want to tell you about my car. Last March, after a five-month wait--the waiting period for these vehicles has to tell you something about the demand for them, no?--I finally took delivery of a brand new, beautiful black Toyota Prius. I had been driving an S-Type Jaguar, and very proud of it. But I have to tell you, Bush, while I have owned quite a number of cars in the course of my life, I've never been quite so pleased and proud as I am of my Toyota Prius.

It allows me to feel a little morally superior, too, as I drive along the highway. Because it's a hybrid, in case you didn't know. Imagine this: on my weekend jaunt up into the mountains, uphill all the way for ninety miles, I averaged more than forty miles to the gallon. The whole trip, there and back, counting the down grade on the way home: forty-eight point seven m.p.g.! And they say you don't get the full potential mileage until you reach seven or eight thousand miles! I'm not there yet.

All of which, of course, brings me to my point: that automobile energy conservation is more than just a possibility. It's a reality. And yet, so far as I can tell, Bush, you have done absolutely nothing to promote it. On the contrary, it's just another area where you have chosen not to serve our national interest, but rather to treat us as a pathetic bunch of dutiful consumers--and shame on us, for accepting that role. Four years after the fact, we still don't know what went on between your Cheney and those energy barons he gathered together to decide on a national energy policy. The gall of it, really! Setting national policy in consultation only with those who stand to benefit from it! And then keeping it secret, refusing to divulge even who attended or what was discussed!

If this is your vision of democracy, Bush, I'm outraged. And we're still learning more about the Enron conspiracy to max out their profits while gleefully gouging California consumers. Are we expected to believe that, if this happened once, and was exposed, it is not happening still, undisclosed, elsewhere, all the time?

We need an energy policy, Bush. One that we can all get behind and make what sacrifices we need to make. You make political hay by raising the alarm on a Social Security "crisis" that looms forty years from now. The finite resources of fossil fuel energy are rapidly being depleted, and this crisis is with us NOW. We need a clearly stated policy--and one that does not count exclusively on making money for your oil company buddies by raping both our own national resources and our natural environment. We need one that doesn't continually feed the coffers of those despotic regimes you claim to want to reform into democracies; or to countries--think Iran, think Saudi Arabia--without whose active support those terrorists with whom you claim to be at war would soon be out of business. And in the case of Iran at least, are turning their profits from our oil dependency into the very weapons of mass destruction you claim to want to protect us from.

Is it not another terrible irony, Bush, that your energy policy--such as I have to surmise it to be--does nothig but foster everything you claim to be fighting in this world? Again, at inordinate expense.

Now, adding insult to injury, the political powers here in California are talking about a tax-by-the-mile system, for the upkeep of a highway infrastructure now under severe stress as the results of the popular tax revolt of the 1970s come home to roost. And we here in this country still whine incessantly about paying $2 a gallon for gasoline, where most of the world has to cough up three times that amount. If talk turns to action on this tax-by-the-mile issue, Bush, I might as well trade in my Toyota Prius and go out and buy myself a Hummer. I might need the protection when the real revolution comes!

A word in your ear, Bush: conservation. And a second word: now.

Monday, February 14, 2005

I'm back!

Well, good Monday morning, Bush! You'll be happy to hear I'm back, and ready to restart our dialogue--well, truthfully, our monologue. I don't hear back from you as often as I'd like. No matter, I had a great weekend (more in a moment), but haven't seen a newspaper since Wednesday. Haven't seen a TV news report. Haven't read a blog! Haven't missed any of them! Well, to be honest, I did miss my blog a bit. It's something of a passion for me, these days. So I trust that our eavesdroppers will be back with us too.

About the weekend. I told you something about it last Thursday, Bush, just before I left town, so I don't want to repeat myself. Check out our communication for that day, if you missed it. Enough to say that the weekend was an outstanding success, despite a persistent downpour of rain from Thursday afternoon through Saturday evening in the mountains. It was without question the wettest weekend I ever attended. Even so, it worked. The magic works every time. Twenty-six men went back down from the mountain, their eyes absolutely glowing with what they had discovered about themselves, about the potential of their lives, about the power of men when they learn to work together for the interests of all. Once again, it was a joy and a privilege to work with them. I learn so much from these men every time, as well as from my fellow staffers. And there's so much, always, still to learn… It's truly an adventure.

I plan to catch up with your doings, Bush, in the course of the day, in the earnest hope that you have managed to contain some of your baser instincts since I've been gone. We'll talk more tomorrow.

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day to you and Laura!

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Saving the World

I'm off to staff a men's training this weekend, Bush. I think you'd be interested in it, so let me tell you a little about it before I go. It's in good part about that ancient warrior sleeping deep inside our genes, and how that warrior can--and all too often does--run wild in the contemporary world. If wisely used, though, in full consciousness, it can prove a strong, stablizing and protective force. It's important for the future of the planet that we learn this. Your sword, Bush, is the combined power of the United States military force. It behooves you to wield it in wisely, and never in a show of power for the sake of power.

This weekend's training is one of many offered by the International ManKind Project. I myself got involved twelve years ago, when I was going through a lot of anguish in my life, as we all do, from time to time, and needed help. A friend happened to mention the weekend to me at a party, and something about it called to me immediately. I signed up blind, and went through one of the most challenging--not to say harrowing!--experiences of my life. Writing about it later, I described it as a "boot camp for the emotions."

I've been on staff myself quite a number of times since then, and it's always a uniquely rewarding experience. I can't tell you much about the blow-by-blow, but it's a very intense two days that demand almost everything they've got, physically, emotionally, spiritually, from both participants and staff. I regard it as vitally important work, because there's so much masculine energy going sadly awry in the world today. We wade crotch-deep through the morass of blood that men have spilled, and mostly for men's reasons: power, self assertion, greed, ambition, anger, revenge… The thing is, Bush, there's nothing wrong with the energy itself. It's all good. But it can easily get misused.

I believe that we all inherit a very deep memory along with our genes; that, for men, the ancient instincts--to hunt, to protect, to generate, to procreate--have not disappeared, but rather that their expression in the modern world often takes inappropriate and dangerous forms. They take the form of aggression, obsessive competition, the drive to dominate. When frustrated, they often mutate into negative feelings like anger, fear, anguish… The feelings in turn, because we're trained to think them inappropriate, get stuffed down inside, below the level of consciousness, and mutate once again into ulcers, addictive behaviors, sudden, irrational outbursts of uncontrollable resentment and rage. Often aggravated as a result of wounds incurred in childhood, they can easily take charge of our lives without our even being aware of them.

The challenge is to learn to acknowledge those buried feelings and turn them, instead, to our advantage. Anger and fear can be good friends, for example, once they're no longer in control. Some men have killer instincts; with consciousness and training, those instincts can be channeled into slaying some of the real dragons out there in the world, rather than themselves, or those they love. It's a matter of learning to keep the shadow out in front of us, rather than letting it operate us, like puppets, from behind.

I'm saddened, sometimes--often, Bush--by the damage I see done by men who lack the consciousness to see themselves with clarity, and who succumb to ancestral instincts in a world that can no longer tolerate them. Remember Saddam, Bush? Remember Bin Laden? Hitler? Stalin? Kim Jong Il? The Janjaweed? Or, closer to home, the Boston Strangler? Scott Peterson? Those sports players, and fans, who lose their heads and end up in a brawl? Those fathers lost to their families because of their addiction to work, or alcohol, or drugs, or women? Those men who destroy their own lives, and the lives of those they love because of their inability to trust, or to commit?

These are the kinds of things we're talking about, Bush. Men usually come to us when they reach the end of their tether, when they know that something is terribly wrong with their lives, and want to change them. Men who are lost, with no sense of where they're headed. Men who are unable to love or trust themselves, or anyone else around them. It's surprising how many of them this work can help; how many doors we open into hope. Because there are no miracles, Bush, as I'm sure you know. Just work. Just doors opening to new hope, and work to do to get there.

We don't pretend to have answers. We don't pretend a man can be transformed in the course of a single weekend. We just try to open that door, and invite each man to step through, if he has the guts, and continue with his life's work with a clearer sense of who he is, and what he's given to do. We call it--perhaps a shade pompously, and yet with a real sense of dedication: "saving the world, one man at a time."

So, wish me luck, Bush. Wish you could be there with us. See you Monday. For more information about this weekend, feel free to visit the website of the MKPLA.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Kind of muddled

Thanks, Bush, for explaining your Social Security initiative at your appearance in Tampa, Florida the other day. In your speech, you actually seemed to have some grasp of the economic realities. I can only surmise that the speech was written for you by one of your advisors. It was afterwards, in answer to questions, that things got a wee bit muddled, as you yourself admitted. Viz (and I quote from your own website, above):

THE PRESIDENT: Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to what has been promised.

Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

Okay, better? I'll keep working on it.

Unquote. Please do so, Bush. Keep working on it. I need your help to understand this radical proposal you're putting forward.

Oh, and while we're at it, I must register my personal dismay at the elevation of your Rove to new and dangerous powers. I know the man only as the political operative who engineered your election in 2000 and your reelection this past year. As I understand it, he is now to be your "deputy White House chief of staff in charge of coordinating policy between the White House Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council." That's a whole big charge, right there. It makes it sound like Rove will be running the whole country. Maybe he already does. Under your watchful eye.

What bothers me, though, is the shifting of a political ideologue into such a hugely influential policy-making position. It bothers me because it reflects so much about yourself, Bush, and your familiar conflation of ideology and policy. Your ideology is yours, and welcome to it. No quarrel there. But your policy affects us all. We have a right to expect to be heard by you.

Have you not steered this country far enough to the right already? Have you not taken us far beyond where the majority of us wish to go, on almost every front? Is there no limit to your presumption of mandate, where there was none?

An observation: if the above remarks represent the depth of your understanding of our national economy, Bush, and the quality of your thinking on the subject, I shudder to think where we're headed. Sometimes you scare the pants off me.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Chong's Bongs, and More

Happy Birthday, Flora! (My sister, that is, Bush, still living back in the old country. Old Europe, as your Rumsfeld memorably once said.) But I sometimes wonder, Bush, if I'm still living in the same country that I came to forty years ago. You like to think of us, I know, as the beacon of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world. But sometimes, honestly, I just have to wonder…

I was listening to KPCC on the freeway yesterday, for example, and if it wasn't one thing, it was another. The one thing was Terri Gross's interview with Tommy Chong, the comedian recently released after serving nine months in jail for his association with his son's business, selling drug paraphenalia on the Internet. Bongs, in a word. With Tommy's famous stoner mug engraved on the glass. He was netted in "Operation Pipe Dreams," if you can believe it, a sweep of all those evil-doers aiding and abetting those marijuana users out there--half the nation, at a guess. Did your Ashcroft's Justice Department not have more important priorities than the arrest and proseuction of bong distributors? I mean, seriously...

Besides, the prosecution of the suppliers of this apparatus reminds me of the (somewhat corny) old story of Paddy, the Irishman, who was caught with all the apparatus for making moonshine liquor in his cellar. No liquor, he'd gotten rid of the hard evidence in the usual manner: he just had the apparatus. Still, he was hauled before the local judge and duly found guilty of the crime of making illegal liquor. Before sentencing the dastard, the judge asked, "Well, Paddy, now, do you have anything to say in your defence?" (Irish spelling, Bush). "Well, yes, Your Honour," Paddy says, "while we're at it, I'd like Your Honour to take into account an additional charge of rape." "Rape?" says the judge, surprised: "You haven't committed rape, have you?" "Well, no Your Honour," Paddy says. "But I have the apparatus."

Well, maybe not so terribly funny, Bush. But nine months? For having his name associated with this terrible crime. The prosecutor, one Mary Beth Buchanan, was interviewed by Terry Gross, and never cracked a radio smile. Her associate, in her summary, had accused Chong of becoming wealthy by "glamorizing the illegal use and distribution of marijuana, and trivializing law enforcement efforts to combat drug use." Referring, of course, to the Cheech and Chong movie series of the 1970s. Thirty years ago, Bush! Satire! No? A legitimate art form! Freedom of speech, freedom of expression! Are they forgotten, in America today? I mean, seriously. Shades of Lenny Bruce. Though, of course, in the current climate, poor Lenny would likely fare even worse than he did back then.

Okay, on to the other apparent seemingly absurd overreach of judicial power: Kitty Felde's interviews with principals involved in the arrest and incarceration of Iman Abdel Jabar Hamdan, husband and father, a twenty-seven year resident of the United States, who had the misfortune to have acted as a fundraiser for an organization later designated by the Justice Department as having provided funds to terrorist organizations. (Thank you, Kitty, for drawing greater attention to this case--particularly mine!) It appears from the narrative that those primarily responsible for the day-to-day operations of the organization have already been let off the hook, for lack of evidence. But Hamdan, reportedly a minor figure, employee, consultant to the organization, was arrested six months ago at his home at dead of night before his terrified wife and children, and carted off to jail without explanation, where he has remained ever since--as I understand it, charged even now only with a minor, twenty-year old visa violation. This is the stuff, I hate to say it, of a fascist state. Not America, surely?

So tell me, is this the beacon of freedom and democracy we wish to present to the rest of the world, Bush? Or are stories such as this a source for greater outrage and resentment in the Arab world? Are we to be known as the country that persecutes and imprisons its citizens for absurdly minor and unproven offenses? As I say, I sometimes have to wonder if this is the same country I came to, forty years ago…

Monday, February 07, 2005


Ah, yes, Bush. The thirty-ninth run of the gladiators. What is it with those Roman numerals, anyway? XXXIX? Sounds like a less than favorable movie rating. Which reminds me, of course, of that infamous wardrobe malfunction at half-time in XXXVIII. I'm not a great football watcher, Bush, but I watched this one, if only as a not-to-be-missed update on our cultural status quo. (Boy, are we getting classical today!)

I watched in the full expectation, of course, that your morals brigade would have succeeded in wielding enough influence to clean it up for me this year; and I was shocked almost beyond words to find myself once again exposed (forgive the expression, Bush) to some pretty raunchy stuff. Not the kind of thing you'd want your children to be watching, if you were serious about wanting to protect their moral values.

I mean, did you happen to catch that commercial where they were mocking--mocking, there's no other word for it, Bush--the righteous indignation of those good people you've appointed to oversee our national moral welfare? In the course of which commercial, the sick-minded perpetrators not only engineered a purposeful wardrobe malfunction, but managed also to expose more breast--sans nipple, I'm happy to report, but more breast per naked square inch than Janet Jackson is endowed with, as we all now know. And at closer, more shameless range. A rank temptation to more lascivious minds, Bush, than yours or mine. I was just happy that my own children are now too old to have their tender minds warped by this kind of gratuitous, supposedly humorous filth.

And did you catch the lyrics to that one of Sir Paul McCartney's songs? You'd think that, what with being a Sir and all, even a former Beatle would have learned a little decency by now. Wrong! "JoJo was a man," he sang, "but thought he was a woman"(emphasis mine). Does that not evoke precisely the kind of lifestyle we've been trying so hard to protect our children from hearing about? I was frankly appalled. And then that reference to a woman of at least questionable morals: "People," the lyric went, if I have it right, "said she had it coming, But she gets it when she can" (emphasis added, again). Is this the kind of story that we want our kids to hear? I'm with you, Bush: I recoil at such a thought.

And--did my eyes deceive me?--was there not a moment in another commercial where we were invited to watch the peculiarly disgusting spectacle of a chimpanzee in the act of planting a kiss on another chimpanzee's (let's not mince words, Bush) posterior? And here we've been trying to hard to set the record straight on evolution, too. Is it funnyto be watching chimpanzees acting as human beings? Or is this another liberal assault on our dearly-held beliefs, not to mention our education system?

Well, Bush, I'm sitting here just hoping that you'll get your Margaret Spellings onto this immediately. And your new guy at the FCC, whoever that might be. I think we can agree that Michael Powell did things by half measures there, just like his Dad. Right, Bush? He let an awful lot of smut get under the wire, so to speak. But this kind of thing is not to be tolerated in a decent America, in public, in a TV show watched by millions throughout the world.

So, let's get cracking… um, well, let's get started, Bush. It's high time we invented a cleaner, more moral America!

Oh, and by the way, did anyone happen to notice that another twenty-eight people, at least, were killed in your Iraq war yesterday?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Dinner Party, Among Friends

I have to report that you were the cause of great dissension last night, Bush, at a dinner party among friends. It started just as we were about to leave when The Other Peter in attendance (TOP) asked This Peter (TP), pointedly, what he would hope might be the outcome of your adventure in Iraq. The subect had come up less heatedly earlier in the evening, and TOP had expressed the earnest hope that the Iraqis would now, finally, have the good fortune and good sense to establish a sound constitution and viable government, and look forward to a preaceful and prosperous future. (I must admit I paraphrase a bit here, Bush, but I'm doing my best to represent him accurately).

To which, thus put on the spot, TP expressed his complete agreement, adding--I think it was at this point in the conversation--that the global community needed to learn to collaborate, forcefully if necessary, to confront such monsters as Saddam, who slaughter hundreds of thousands of their own citizens and threaten their neighbors'. Which caused unanimous outrage amongst the women at the table, all of whom were enraged, in retrospect, by your invasion of Iraq and your virtual destruction of that country. TOP and TP struggled manfully to deny disagreement with this angry rejection of your tactics, Bush, but we had then been tarred, by association, with the brush of murderous aggression, and the conversation ended up in a near-brawl. Well, all in good spirits, of course, Bush. And all, eventually, I think, agreeing to agree on the one point of your having disastrously misled the American public in your "preemptive"--and needlessly precipitous--action.

Two thoughts remain from last night's donnybrook. One, for me at least, is the vital importance of developing some common, global accord on how to deal with the oncoming signs of genocide and mass-murder in our midst. Ths history is pitiful, fraught with irrational selectivity and unforgivable neglect. The UN has proven powerless. And yet… And yet… Do we then sit back, throw up our hands, and say, Well, that's humankind for you? That kind of thing is inevitable. What business is it of ours? Why, Bush, are we all (not just the U.S., of course) sitting back right now and watching that dreadful history repeat itself in Darfur?

Second thought--and I think this is related: in this country, we liberal-minded people need to quit brawling with each other and find common ground where we can redefine liberalism for the 21st century, to account for the indisputable and irreversible fact of globalization and the ascendency of corporate power. We can no longer, if we're to be successful, simply oppose. We must propose. What, TOP was asking last night, do we desire from the morass you, Bush, and your people have created in Iraq? We can't just go on repeating how dreadful and misguided your action was in the first place. We're no longer there, and it's unproductive and, worse, disempowering to keep revisiting the past.

I was referred yesterday by a friend to an article in last Sunday's New York Times about the union leader Andy Stern, who has some interesting and useful thoughts on this subject. The Democratic Party, as he suggests, still seems focused on rehashing the injustices of the past (however recent). (Are we struggling to save Social Security, for example, as it was back then, when it was designed? Or looking for the best way to preserve its liberal goals in a new set of social, financial, and cultural realities?) We need to refocus our attention on what, if anything, it means to be a liberal in the 21st century, the age of the Internet and, yes, globalization. Much as we might wish to do so, there's no way we can rewrite written history.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Watch out, Bush. We're coming!

The David Brooks piece in the New York Times must have brought a smile to your lips this morning, Bush. Do you glance at the Times, from time to time (forgive the clumsy phrasing)? I happen to think he's wrong. Brooks, I mean. Interesting, but wrong. Interesting in tracing the history of political and social action on the Internet back to those groups like the Elks and the Shriners. Wrong in assuming that the new and powerful Internet community that Howard Dean unleashed is composed only of pointy-headed intellectuals far removed from the realities of American life. I believe we are a huge, and hugely diverse community, and that those of us who share a liberal bias are not united simply by our ability to raise money. There's passion out here, Bush. That's what Brooks misses. As I said in a responding letter to the Times (a long shot for publication, Bush, but there's always hope), his dismissive conclusion--that Berkeley will be safe territory for the Democrats for years to come--may well come back to haunt him at the next election. By the way, I'm wearing my ThinkBlue armband, and giving others out to friends. It's a good way to remind ourselves that every day now counts towards November 4, 2008.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The "Ownership Society"

I've been mulling over your catch-phrase of the year, Bush--that "ownership society" you keep talking about--and why I find it so deeply repugnant. The reason my objections run so deep, I've concluded, is that they are philosophical, even spiritual, before being moral, social, or political, though it's hard to make a clear distinction at so profound a level of consciousness.

First, if you stop to think about it, death itself makes nonsense of the notion of ownership. Whatever I believe I "own" is simply no longer mine when I leave this world. As the cliché has it, "you can't take it with you when you go." And leave this world I must, willy nilly, and likely not at a moment of my choosing. Whatever I thought I owned will be left behind for others to distribute, disperse, dispose of, or destroy...

What of the things I think I own in the course of my lifetime? My money can be taken from me at a moment's notice, by theft, by accident, by reversal of fortune, by bankruptcy, by lawsuit. My house, with all its furnishings, its books, its electronic gadgets? They can all be taken from me in the flash of a fire or the cataclysm of an earthquake. Even my "identity", these days, can be stolen at the drop of a hat. So what is "mine"? My property? My little patch of land? My body? Even that most personal and basic of "possessions" is subject to the aging process, disease, death, decay.

Once, then, I admit to myself that I own nothing, I begin to question the whole idea of ownership. An "ownership society", as I see it, would be one where we all get attached to the illusion that we actually do own something, and will do whatever it takes to hold on to it, and get more. When I get more of some material "thing", it means, necessarily, that some one else will have less. Unlike such immaterial qualities as love, goodwill, compassion, material things are a finite resource: whatever I have--money, house, property, belongings--is something someone else can't have, by definition. Ownership, then, will lead inevitably lead to possessiveness, greed, and strife.

What's the alternative? I remember fondly the thinking of my late father-in-law, Michael, who was an art collector. On a modest scale. He was not one of those high-end acquisition demons who amass a fortune's worth of blue chip masterpieces. He simply loved the stuff. Art filled his home. But like many collectors I've had the good fortune to meet in my years as a professional art writer, he considered himself not the owner, but rather the temporary custodian of the pictures he collected. He felt privileged to have managed to gather them around him for a while, but remained always aware that they "belonged" to a much wider public than himself, and would eventually return to it.

This seems to me an eminently healthy attitude toward what we think is ours: that we are in some way blessed to have custodianship, for the time being, but that it will all flow back away from us in the same great flux of life that brought it to us. To the "ownership society", then, I'd prefer the notion of a "sharership society", in which we would all count our blessings, and value those things we're given to enjoy, in the full realization that they are not truly "ours", that we are fully prepared to let them go.

This attitude, I believe, if deeply shared and actually practiced in our daily lives, could make us all more understanding of each other, more generous. More human. When it comes to social and political discourse, there are surely those who will laugh at my simple-mindedness, and label me a socialist or, worse, a communist. I'm not that. I don't believe in trying to enforce some ideal of equality on the huge diversity of humankind that shares the surface of this planet Earth. But, by the same token, it seems to me equally, perhaps even more wrong-headed and absurd to propose "ownership" as the moral and political principle by which we all must live.

Thanks, once again, for listening, Bush. I hope this helps.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A Wink and a Grin

Well, I tried, Bush. I really tried to maintain a semblance of composure, fair-mindeness, and honest goodwill as I listened to your speech last night. I have to confess upfront that I arrived late (traffic) and left early (Jon Stewart, rebroadcast from the previous day at 7PM Pacific time. Sorry, Bush, couldn't resist!) So everything I say from here on in can be construed as utterly unfair, given that I had missed the beginning and the end. Still… Well, I'll go for it anyway.

I repeat, I tried to be fair and balanced, as your Fox folks might say. And I must say I nearly managed. It was the wink that did it, though. Your wink, Bush, mid-way through your presentation, presumably to someone in the audience. That, and the grin. Your Cheney's grin. He sat like the Cheshire Cat immediately behind your shoulder, with that imperturbable grin of his. So comfortable. So self-assured. So undoubting. So fatherly. So aggravating. Your wink said, You and I know that this is all bullshit, really. It said, I have to get through this charade, but don't you worry: once this piece is over, we'll get back to the real agenda. Cheney's grin said, Well done, lad. I'm proud of you. It said, We know who's in charge here, don't we? It said, You and I, lad, we'll show 'em.

But winks and grins aside, I have just a couple of personal gripes, as you might expect by now. The first has to do with this Social Security thing: you started off a few weeks ago calling it a "crisis", and it's now been demoted to a "problem." What you laid out last night, though, was a lot less than the "imminent threat" approach you used to sell the country on your Iraq adventure: the system, you told us, starts paying out more than it takes in by 2018--some thirteen years from now. It's not until four decades from now that it will be able to fulfill only 70 percent of its commitments. Hardly a pressing issue and one which, according to most ecomomists I've read, has much less drastic fixes than your "personal accounts" scheme. And I don't trust your blithe assurance that everything is on the table. As with Iraq, my guess is that it will once again be your way… Or your way.

For immediately far more pressing issues--well, the lead editorial in today's Los Angeles Times suggests a couple: immigration, and deficit reduction. I have my own suggestions, health care being at the top of the list. Here's a real crisis, if you're looking for one. People are actually getting sick and dying, now, here, today, in America, the richest nation in the history of the world, because the health care system is inadequate and simply unavailable to many, and because millions among us can't afford even basic health insurance. Oh, you did mention breezily your own aspiration to create a "community health care center" in every poor county, but it came as one of those "compassionate conservative" throw-aways that we have learned to distrust--like your promise of aid to African countries, Bush. Remember that? You never mentioned it this time around. Not once.

And while we're on the subject of this all-too familiar presidential disingenuousness ("disingenuity"? Help me, someone…) let's pause to note your laudable assertion that every death-penalty defendant deserves adequate legal defense. No quarrel with me there, Bush. I'm all for it. But it does tend to gloss over your record as Governor of Texas. From everything I've heard and read, your current nominee for Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, provided you with only the most cursory legal notes in death penalty cases that came to you for your final clemency review, ignoring egregious examples of shoddy or perfunctory defense. Yet you sent countless people to their deaths on the basis of those reports, apparently without compunction. I'd like to think you've had a change of heart, but you see why I might have less than complete faith in your conversion, don't you? I mean, when in the same breath you urge congress to approve your nomination of Gonzales? Is there not some kind of disconnect there? I think so.

Second gripe--and this goes along with the wink and the grin--is your playing to the right-wing, evangelical balcony. I have to say it: this is disgraceful, abject pandering, Bush, no more nor less. A "constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage"? Come on, really. You have to know that this is nothing more than idle words, a nod (and a wink!) to the support base that elected you. And all that incomprehensible double-talk about scientific research and "the culture of life"? And the drama of the encounter between the parents of the dead Marine and the Iraqi voter…? Nicely staged, Bush. A real heart-breaker. But you and I and the whole world know that it would have been just as easy to find a bitterly resentful parent and an angry, disgruntled non-voter to parade before the American audience.

Here's what I hope: I hope the Democrats have the will and the power to maintain a steady opposition for the next four years. Well, somewhat less, now, than four, and two of them with your own power on the wane. I don't think they will roll over quite so easily this time. I think they're on their guard. Anyway, let's get those health care centers going, okay? And the improvement in the legal defense of death penalty defendants? And, from last time around, No Child Left Behind… the funding? Oh, and about that promise of aid to Africa...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The View from Hubble

Bush, in view of the attempts to get the Hubble repair job dropped from the budget, which apparently you support, I'd like you to check out this URL. It will amaze you! Here's some words to go with it:

The View from Hubble

marvelous places
we have never visited, a thousand
light years distant, light
and darkness such as we have
never seen, holes
in the universe, bodies
of substances unknown, the swirl
of gases as yet undiscovered,
colors unimagined, fragments
of matter exploding outward,
explosions beyond
comprehension, beyond
the power of a billion
billion of your h-bombs,
particles greater than our galaxy,
shot out in space
at speed of light, imploding,
inward, towers of nebulae, spaces
expanding infinitely, collapsing
in on themselves. Imagine a sun
six hundred thousand times
more luminous than our puny Sol.

Their names: Sombrero Galaxy,
Hoag's Object, Galaxy Centaurus A,
Tarantula Nebula, Little Ghost,
Monocerotis Star. Say them
aloud. Rehearse
their magic. Spell them.

Sit down. Sit still. Breathe.
Breathe with eyes closed, to see
the majesty of a thousand universes
inside ourselves: as outside
so within, reflecting, mind
of the Buddha, one, a million
worlds, all one, within. Imagine
a universe of universes
beyond comprehension, mother
of all the gods we have yet
managed to conceive, matter
and anti-matter, one, all,
everything; no space, no time,
inside, outside, breathing,
all one, what
it is.

Groundhog Day

Can it be pure coincidence, I wonder, Bush, that your second State of the Union speech falls on Groundhog Day? Is your prediction record as trustworthy as Punxatawney Phil's? I'd like to know, too, whether you saw your shadow when you poked your head outside this morning? I hope so. Too often, our shadow is behind us: we don't see it, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. To see it, sometimes, we have to turn ourselves around and catch it by surprise. What's your shadow, Bush? And don't tell me you don't have one.

More later...

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Mark Strickland, "The Raising of Consciouness"

Two Paintings...

A change of pace today, Bush, for the first day of a new month. Let's talk a bit about art. It's what I've been doing for a good part of my professional life, so it will be a pleasure for me. I hope for you, too.

If you, like many, have been missing the image of humanity in art in recent years, you need look no further than the work of my friend Mark Strickland. There was a time in the progress of art in the 20th century, when it became an act of defiance even to paint, let alone to include the human figure in your painting. At that time, Strickland had the vision and the daring to return to this most deeply historical of all artists' concerns.

Now in the context of a world gone seemingly mad with in-humanity, the artist has produced two mural-sized paintings that seek with notable ambition to address our human predicament head-on. His "Humanity in Crisis" confronts us unsparingly with a bleak image of what we have come to in our history. This is not a story that we want to hear, but it is a true story about ourselves--a fiery, tortured arc from a circle in Dante's Hell. Outlined in expressive black slashes of paint against a vast blood- or fire-red background, these figures reel and twist in agonized extremis. Their dance, whether alone, in pairs, or groups, is the dance of human vulnerability, the mortality of the flesh in the face of violent forces beyond their control. The pathos of their individuality, in the foreground, recedes in the topmost panels into an epic, indistiguishable mass of barely recognizable human forms, the charnel grounds of a whole earthly species.

But Strickland offers us an alternative to this grim vision in the second painting, "The Raising of Consciousness". Here, the story is one of gradually blossoming hope. We read it left to right through six imposing panels. In each of the lower four, the space is dominated by a single giant head--reminiscent, perhaps, of those ancient stone heads of the Buddha, though each of them is human, individual. The lower part of each space, however, is occupied by outlined figures familiar to us from "Humanity in Crisis". In the first, to the left, the background is once again red, and its figures struggle in agony...

Bringing our attention to the eyes, though, and working from left to right, we notice how they change from panel to panel: closed, shielded, shamed, averted from the pain they witness in the extreme left panel, they open slowly, rising and turning with the slow turn of the heads themselves until, in the last painting to the right, they achieve a kind of transcendence--a transcendence realized in their placement, now in the upper range of panels. For if the lower panels represent--in broad, rough terms--the physical aspect of our existence on this planet, the upper panels bring to mind the spiritual dimension, the level of consciousness to which the painting's title refers. Here, in these rectangular panels that sweep across the top of the huge painting, an undulating wind seems to flow, following the overall color sequence from predominant tones of red, to orange, to yellow, and finally to blue.

It is here, in the last panel, that we find the giant face almost, now, benign, eyes raised, lips full and slightly smiling. Those outlined figures which before had seemed locked in strife are seen now rising toward spirit with the breath of consciousness. The moral here--if we follow this complex and visually compelling painting at the level of its moral structure only--is the story, precisely, of the redemptive power of the "raising of consciousness". It teaches--insofar as a painting teaches us anything: and why not?--that for us human beings the only way out of the predicament we have created for ourselves is the path of consciouness, the constant, unwavering awareness of our selves and our actions in the world. The first rule of enlightened consciousness, of course, is to do no harm… if we could only learn it.

A part of what artists do--a part of their ancient, shamanic function from the earliest of times--is to make marks. And Strickland reminds us forcefully of that function (it's not for nothing, perhaps, that his first name is Mark!): everywhere in "The Raising of Consciousness", as on the walls of ancient caves throughout the world, we find the mark of the human hand. Sometimes it seems to slide and grasp, sometimes to clutch, as if in desperation. Sometimes to caress. And sometimes it is simply there, a lasting token of the human presence, and of the consequence of human action. It is, in its utter simplicity, at once the poignant record and the symbol of who we are, and what we do. It ends, in this painting, reaching upward in a gesture of hope.

So that's it for today, Bush. Apologies for the length. I hope you had time to read it, though I expect you're getting ready for that big speech tomorrow...