Tuesday, December 30, 2008


January 1, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,
Adell Allen, a long-time parishioner of St. Augustine Catholic Church here in the South Bronx, died on the first of December. She was 92. Born in Jamaica and trained as a teacher, she moved to New York in 1945, working menial jobs for years before finding employment at Lincoln Hospital and rising to unit coordinator. She and her husband raised two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom became medical doctors. At her funeral, her son told the mourners: "My mother defied the racial prejudice she experienced here in America and made a successful career, as did my father. They motivated us kids to do the same. But Mom always said she'd never live to see the day when a Black person would become president of the United States. For the first time in her life, she was wrong about something."
On election night at eleven o'clock, the neighborhood around St. Augustine's erupted with firecrackers and shouts: "O-bam-AH! O-bam-AH!" Not long ago, the noise would have come from gunfire and fights.
Talk about "change."
Whether or not the new administration will be able to effect change in the political sense, profound change has already occurred in the symbolic sense. Electing a Black president has lifted not only Blacks' self-esteem but the whole nation's — and the world's. My friend Georg Michels, a history professor at U.C. Riverside, told me that his aged father in Germany — along with most of the globe — stayed up till dawn watching the election returns and Obama's victory speech. His dad calls Obama der Weltpresident — the World-president.
Let's hope our new leader can use this enormous cache of good will to make genuine progress toward peace and justice here and abroad.
Change: It definitely was a year of it, wasn't it? Just look at your retirement account. Who but those few economists that take the dismal science literally could have predicted what might be the Great Depression II?
Oh well, it's only money.
A receding tide lowers all boats, but it's less evident in areas that are perpetually aground, like the South Bronx. The working poor here are still working and still poor, but the basics get harder to meet. Rents continue to rise, as downsized Manhattanites begin finding the Bronx suddenly attractive. The population is slowly diversifying; White artistic types are colonizing the far south of the South Bronx, doing the loft thing to rundown furniture factories on the waterfront and opening up tony restaurants nearby. Albanians are retreating north, selling their bodegas to the Arabs: Up on Third Avenue, the Kosovo Grocery has become the Anwar Deli. Many West Africans are moving into this formerly entirely American Black and Hispanic neighborhood, as well as a few daring Jews and Asians.
The building boom continues here, though it may only be the completion of securely-financed projects. Two blocks west on Third Avenue, a brewery from the 1920's, one of many in this once-German area, long since turned into warehouses and parking garages, has been demolished, to be replaced by a strip mall, of all things.
But if there is any indicator of economic health and sickness, it is food. The number of people coming weekly to the St. Augustine Food Pantry has tripled, from 200 a year ago to 600 today. Obtaining that much food is a challenge to the pantry's director, Sister Dorothy Hall, an African-American widow and mother who retired from government service six years ago to join the Dominican Order of nuns. One of her main funders is America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based food philanthropy. This year my sister Jeannie requested our family to forgo Christmas gifts and donate the money to this charity, which I most gladly did.
A related food issue is "sustainability" — decreasing dependence on industrial agriculture by producing food locally. Everywhere in New York City, community-run farmers' markets are springing up, supporting upstate family farmers and bringing urbanites fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices — particularly important in places like the South Bronx, where poor nutrition and low-quality supermarket produce lead to virtual epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
Community gardens also contribute. Last summer, our tiny garden here produced enormous quantities of vegetables, the surfeit of which we gave to the farmers' market up the block, run by local high-school students.
But it's not just vegetables anymore. In August, faculty, students, and alumni of St. Augustine Catholic School built a chicken coop in their garden, and in October, 15 hens arrived from an upstate chicken farm to live and lay in it. In addition to giving the community fresh, nutritious eggs and providing our gardens with natural, nitrogen-rich fertilizer, the chickens have become a unique kind of clucking teacher, showing children where their food comes from and asking them to take responsibility for their care. (The chicken project, by the way, was funded by Heifer International, the organization known for supplying livestock to poverty areas worldwide — another worthy cause to support.)
And my beehives continue to thrive, yielding great quantities of pure, healthful local honey.
It's only natural.
For the chickens' bedding and nesting, we buy hay from a feed store just a few blocks from here — the last holdover from earlier times, when West Farms was not just the name of a subway stop smack in the middle of the Bronx.
There's something timeless about it. The sweet smell of hay in our henhouse stretches back to Bethlehem.
Wishing you peace and well-being in the New Year,
Roger Repohl


December 25, 2008

Ain't it something? Obama picks a whole cabinet and a host of top advisors, and there's hardly a mumble of dissent. Obama picks megachurch-preacher Rick Warren for his inauguration, and half his supporters - his supporters, mind you — are furious: How can you choose a guy who opposes what you favor, a guy who rejects abortion rights and compares gay marriage to incest?
The president-elect is either a master dialectician or a fuzzy-head when it comes to the volatility of religion in American life.
He himself takes the dialectic side: "That's part of the magic of this country," he told the press last week, "that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. That's hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration."
The Team of Rivals marches heavenward.
On the fuzzy-headed side, Obama has something of a history. He defended the incendiary Jeremiah Wright till that Chicago firebrand became indefensible; how couldn't he realize that Warren would ignite a similar explosion, though in a rather different constituency?
What does this tell us about Obama's religio-political disposition? To add the requisite transcendent dimension to the inaugural love-feast, he could easily and sensibly have selected some neutral figure, like an all-inclusivist Unitarian. Does Mr. No-Drama like playing with religious fire?
Of course, the only excluded party in all of this uproar is God himself.
God — that poor thing. The Eternal, the Almighty, the Master of Everything has become just another political football, passed and kicked this way and that in this self-congratulatory game.
If I — or you — were God, we wouldn't stand for it. We'd assert ourselves. But either Christopher Hitchens is right that God Is Not Great, or God does not exist, or God exists in a way that confounds the smug assuredness of Warren and the whole bunch of other self-appointed surrogates that think they know who he is and what he is doing.
If the Torah and the Gospels reveal anything about God, it's that just when people believe they've got him figured out, he turns the tables on them. To use one of many examples from the book of Genesis: God hates deception, doesn't he? So God gives the birthright to Jacob through an act of deception, Jacob fooling his blind old father Isaac into blessing him instead of his elder brother. Or to use one timely example from the Gospels: God is all-powerful, right? So he sends his Son to be born in abject poverty and helplessness, not in a palace but a barn.
What kind of a God is this, anyway?
Perhaps God does not exist. Perhaps God is impotent. Perhaps God is disinterested. Or perhaps God is totally different from anything we think we know, at work in ways we shall never know.
At an inauguration, when the president and the nation need all the help they can get, it doesn't seem quite right to be noisy and opinionated in the matter of invoking God. Better to approach God, whatever and whoever he is, in silence and humility, in fear and trembling.
Just in case.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


December 18, 2008

Thomas Merton, the man who invigorated American spirituality in the mid-twentieth century, was killed in Southeast Asia forty years ago, on December 10, 1968.
It was, in actuarial terms, an act of God. After giving a lecture at a conference on East-West monasticism near Bangkok, Thailand, he went to his room, touched a faultily-wired floor fan, and was electrocuted. He was 53 years old.
Merton's life was larger than life, even though he spent over half of it behind the walls of a monastery.
Born in France in 1915 to a cosmopolitan family — his father was a landscape painter from New Zealand, his mother an independently wealthy poet from New York — and orphaned by age 16, he led a raucous, randy life at English boarding schools, Cambridge University, and finally Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, working on a master's degree in literature, he was introduced by a philosophy professor to the Catholic intellectual tradition; it presented him with the unified worldview he had long sought to integrate his fragmented life. In 1938 he became a Catholic, and three years later entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.
It was a radical and most incongruous lifestyle choice. Merton was a brilliant young writer with a compulsive drive for fame. And, as biographer Michael Mott describes him, "He liked people, he was gregarious, he liked women, he liked talk, lots of talk, argument, and laughter." Yet he chose a religious order based on isolation from the world, perpetual silence, manual labor, and hours of formal prayer — and generally suspicious of things intellectual. Some of his friends predicted he wouldn't last a year.
Fortunately — or providentially — the abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, was a cultured man who saw in Merton's diaries and notes a fresh and unique way of describing monastic life to the world outside. He suggested an autobiography.
In 1948, Harcourt, Brace published The Seven Storey Mountain, named after the rings of spiritual progress in Dante's Purgatorio. In a year it had sold 300,000 copies, and by the end of the first edition's run, double that. Its readership, like Merton himself, was eclectic, not exclusively Catholic. People of every sort, from orthodox to agnostic, identified with its colloquial style and its uncanny commonality: Merton's search for meaning, wholeness, and peace was everybody's, especially after the trauma of World War II, though his particular path to them was surely not.
His first book of popular reflections on the spiritual life, Seeds of Contemplation, appeared a year later, and sold almost as well as the autobiography. When I was in high school in the mid- 1960's, I bought it at the suggestion of my parish priest and devoured the slender volume in one gulp. I've re-read it at least half a dozen times since then.
Most spiritual writing is, predictably, other-worldly; much of it is saccharine. Merton's is neither. It is concrete, staccato, sometimes abrasive, thoroughly masculine: in a word, worldly. Take this passage, for example: "But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be upset, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul ...."
Some years ago I found a first-edition copy of Seeds of Contemplation in the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village. Written in pencil on the flyleaf is:
J. Finnigan
Bank of the Manhattan Company
40 Wall Street
N.Y. 19, N.Y.
The book is marked up with underlinings and marginal notes in pencil, blue-black fountain-pen ink, and red ballpoint. Mr. Finnigan, the Wall Street banker, must himself have re-read it several times.
Merton's literary talent was for drawing you into a life you couldn't imagine living yourself. Book by book, and especially in the journals he kept specifically for publication, you develop a relationship to this man, as if you actually know him: caustic and light-hearted, serious and impish, insatiably curious about everything.
Just as he was no plaster saint, he was no academician but an authentic intellectual. In his journals he energetically engages the biggest thinkers in the biggest thoughts. He carried on lively correspondence with people as varied as Boris Pasternak and the Dalai Lama, and he wrote about Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx as if he'd corresponded with them too.
When the reforms following the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960's allowed monks more personal freedom and access to the media, Merton's writings turned political. He alienated many conservative Catholics by his agitation for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Released from the repressive severity of the old monastic rule, he fell in love with a young nurse he had met while a patient in a Louisville hospital. Though accounts of this evidently platonic romance surfaced years after his death, from his private journals and the recollections of his friends, many people were already thinking that the trip to Asia, his first extended stay outside the monastery, was a proximate preparation for leaving religious life, as so many priests, brothers, and nuns were doing at the time. Was he considering such a step? And if he'd done so, how would it have affected the countless readers who had drawn so much from him for so long?
Thomas Merton died 27 years to the day that he entered the monastery of Gethsemani.
Was it an act of God?


December 11, 2008

Well, what do you think? Now that gasoline prices have fallen by more than half since last summer and may drop even further, will you rush to your GM/Ford/Chrysler dealer and buy that new SUV at that unbelievable markdown?
Talk me down, as they say, but I tend to doubt it. You'll probably never go for a guzzler again.
It's ironic that just as prices at the pump were plummeting, the American auto execs were begging Congress for a bailout: Just get us through the next few months and we'll get better, promise.
They could be thinking of what happened after earlier gas crises: As soon as the cost of fuel went down, America's lust for big cars went back up.
It may not happen this time. There are too many other factors in play.
The big slogan of the presidential campaign (remember that?) was "Change," a vague term candidates would fling at each other, the Congress, and the present administration. As the economic implosion continues, however, a real, profound kind of change seems to be occurring from the bottom up — a change in individuals' attitudes toward consuming and conserving.
The auto industry hangs in the balance.
I may have missed it, but in all the Congressional hearings on car-company bailouts did anyone ever mention the very first principle from Economics 101, the law of supply and demand? The reason why the news from Detroit is so bad is not only that Americans aren't buying Hummers, but that they're not buying cars, period. Even the Asian companies with their host of fuel- efficient vehicles are suffering. And it's not only because credit is so tight they can't get loans, it's because people all over are looking at the car in their driveway and saying to themselves, "Heck, it looks good, it runs great — why not keep it a while?"
As Consumer Reports and other sources continue to show, the durability and reliability of cars both foreign and domestic have improved dramatically over the last years. Provided you were not in a major wreck or your cat hasn't torn up the interior, you could easily keep your car for a decade or more, and even then trade it in for what dealers now proudly call a "pre-owned vehicle," thoroughly inspected and serviced and almost as good as new.
Having less money — and even the fear of having less money — necessarily turns people conservative on consumption, particularly of durables: If goods are still good, why toss them out? Living like this for a time, they may come to realize a more fundamental fact: that their identities and self-esteem do not depend on how new their car or their kitchen is but how well it is used.
Last summer's petroleum peril forced many skeptics to see practical value in "going green," a mentality and a movement that had been gaining ground well before the economic meltdown: contributing to a "sustainable" environment by reducing energy consumption, living more simply and frugally, eating locally- grown foods.
Seriously taken and widely practiced, a sustainable lifestyle will have a major effect on the auto industry that has not been voiced in all the bailout ballyhoo. It is not just about making more fuel-efficient cars, it's about how many cars to make.
On Monday, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced that ridership on public transportation increased in the third quarter of 2008 by 6.5% nationally over the same period last year. Increases in Los Angeles, the very symbol of the car culture, were even more pronounced: 14% for subways, 15% for light rail, 17% for commuter trains — all this despite falling fuel costs. APTA president William W. Millar commented that "As gas prices rose, more and more Americans made the choice to ride public transit. Now, even though gas prices are falling, Americans tried public transit and may find it convenient."
And not just convenient. "To sum it up," Millar said, "public transportation is good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for energy independence."
President-elect Barack Obama agrees; spending on transit is a major component of his massive public works proposal, and for the same reasons Millar cites. If that comes to pass, there will be many more transportation options available, and it is likely that the trend from the car to the train will continue.
So where does this leave the auto industry? The real issue, the big-picture issue, is not merely about "restructuring," it is about permanent downsizing. In the future, people will buy fewer cars and keep them longer. They will realize that ecologically, the greenest car is the car that is never built. Back to Econ. 101: Millions of individual decisions not to buy will force a different kind of restructuring not presently contemplated by either government or the car companies.
Predictably, both Obama and Congressional Democrats support the biggest car-loan ever, fearing another sector collapse. A better course would be to let the Big Three restructure themselves based on market forces and pour those billions into the industries of the future, the so-called green technologies, giving incentives to locating them in the very places affected by old-manufacturing unemployment. Wouldn't Michael Moore be ecstatic to see solar-panel and fuel-cell companies revitalizing Flint, Michigan?
Bailout or no bailout, the economy is re-shaping itself through decisions made at a million kitchen tables. When all this ends, small may be beautiful again.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


December 4, 2008

It's crazy. All those Reaganomicists who once chanted "Government is the problem!" are now full of irrational exuberance at its salvific power. Even Alan Greenspan is repentant.
It's like drunks falling off the temperance wagon: Dry for so long, they go on a bender. Actually, to modify the metaphor, they're just switching intoxicants: Now that their supply of the cocaine of unbridled capitalism has dried up, they've finagled the key to the federal liquor-locker.
The present Bush administration has been prepping these erstwhile conservatives for their turnabout for years by quietly jettisoning the bedrock principle of traditional Republicanism, the balanced budget, allowing Congress to spree on every manner of bridge to nowhere here and abroad while racking up the debt — different only in magnitude from the average American's credit- card mentality. Only late in his second term did the president begin to veto spending bills in the name of fiscal restraint — like a few million bucks for children's health-care, of all things.
Pundits love to quote the apocryphal but characteristic observation by the driest wit in the Senate, Everett Dirksen, back in the 1960's: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." Adjusted for inflation, Ev, you'd better make that "trillion." And as for real money, even that isn't real anymore; it's impossible to wrap your mind around just how much several trillion dollars is. Dinky little programs like universal health care were until a couple months ago thought far too expensive, but since the bailouts began, expense means nothing — or more correctly, it means everything: We're all ultra-Keynesians now. The dam has broken and the dollars gush out, and any anxiety about the flood is just a momentary qualm, like judging how much to tip the waiter.
It's crazynomics.
Crazynomics is the reactive result of the canonization of the free market that's been deluding Americans for three decades. The superficially noble philosophy of enlightened self-interest, what Bush once confidently named the "ownership society" — the utopian belief that everybody is a Horatio Alger who, left to his own ingenuity, will naturally grow rich — has twisted our collective psyche. Replacing the expert-run company pension with the you-decide 401-k, deregulating the formerly stable institutions for basic saving and borrowing, encouraging sky's- the-limit home loans, offering "free choice" in Medicare drug plans (the public only balked at privatizing Social Security), all are sending half the country over the cliff like lemmings. Panicked to stop the hemorrhaging, the Federal Reserve and the Congress thought nothing of injecting pure gold into the veins of institutions weakened by years of self-indulgence. And of course, the hemorrhaging hasn't stopped.
If this is 1932 all over again, it's because nearly 30 years of laissez-faire economic policy have sent us "Back to the Future" — the now ironic title of a 2004 Greenspan speech outlining his free-market philosophy.
After the Republican-led money-toss at their buddies the banks — let's see, where exactly are those trillions going? — Democrats are at last looking to their former hero, Franklin Roosevelt, in disrepute since the Carter days. They're going to the people, putting their proposed trillions on results you can see: in the short term, repairing the infrastructure and funding new technologies, and in the long term, re-regulating and stabilizing the fundamental structures of the economy — a minimalist, grounding socialism that provides basic economic assurance for everyone: social security, in lower case.
If crazynomics has done anything, it's made large-scale government spending on programs of real national benefit look modest. Funding for transportation, sustainable energy, new domestic industries, even universal health care that couldn't pass on principle when times were flush may now pass on expediency, just to "create jobs." But that's O.K.; it doesn't matter why they pass, as long as they pass.
So look on the bright side. The Great Depression was miserable, but it forced the creation of public works projects whose results endure to this day. Our Lesser Depression may actually pull the country forward to the future.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


November 27, 2008

Every school day at 7 a.m. sharp, 12-year-old Mame arrives at the Peace Garden adjoining St. Augustine Catholic School in the South Bronx.
The chickens are waiting.
The rustle of her footsteps through the fallen leaves brings 15 big, colorful birds out of their coop and into the pen. They come around her, eyeing her intently, clucking curiously. Mame (pronounced "Mommy") checks their water and food, then looks inside the henhouse. Today she finds a clutch of three large brown eggs, neatly laid in a nest of straw on the floor. She gathers them up.
"I love to take care of the chickens!" Mame smiles. "They look so beautiful, and they know me!"
Mame, whose family immigrated from Senegal two years ago, is a member of the school's Chicken Club, nine students whose year- long project is to learn about ecosystems and human nutrition while practicing hands-on animal husbandry. They perform the daily tasks of keeping the water fresh, the food abundant, the pen cleaned and layered with sweet-smelling straw: farmers' work. They monitor the health of the chickens, their egg production, and the cost of feed. In the spring, they will present their findings at the New York Catholic Schools Science Fair. They're confident they'll win.
"Whenever I go to a principals' meeting," says Cathryn Trapp, St. Augustine's principal, "their first question always is, ‘Well, how are the chickens?' They're jealous."
The school's experiment in urban agriculture is sponsored by Heifer International, the same folks who turn your donations into beehives in Bolivia and goats in Ghana, and Just Food, a nonprofit group committed to localizing the food supply by organizing neighborhood-run farmers' markets and showing community gardeners how to increase their productivity and diversify their output. Their mutual goal, in the word of the day, is "sustainability."
"Chickens are a must for farming ecologically," remarks Owen Taylor, who heads up the chicken project for Just Food. "They eat everything. They'll pick off the insect pests in your garden and consume all your kitchen scraps — meat and egg-shells included. They also aerate the soil by their scratching. In return, you not only get absolutely fresh eggs but the best high-nitrogen fertilizer around. It's great nutrition for you and less chemicals for your garden. And they're not that much work. Plus, they'll bring people to your garden just for the interest."
Mike Brady, the development director at St. Augustine's, was intrigued by the idea and last summer secured a grant from Heifer and Just Food for a coop and pen, 15 chickens, and dry feed enough for a year. In accord with Heifer's philosophy of "passing on the gift," the school's chicken corps will share their expertise with other interested gardeners and lend a hand in new coop construction. Just Food currently sponsors six sites in the city, and Taylor anticipates three more next year.
The St. Augustine group built their structures over three days in August. It was a cooperative project: Taylor drew up the plans and ordered the materials — basically wood, nails, and of course, chicken wire — from Home Depot. Students (Mame among them), teenage alumni, and community gardeners performed the labor. "Working with St. Augustine's was really satisfying, with all the young people involved," Taylor notes. "That's where it's at in terms of community involvement."
The chickens arrived in October from Awesome Farm, a 30-acre organic livestock operation in Tivoli, N.Y., about a hundred miles north of the city.
"The kind we brought them," says KayCee Wimbish, a crazy- for-chickens young woman who runs the farm with her partner Owen O'Connor, "are called Black Sex-linked chickens, which I know is a weird name — it means you can tell male from female chicks by their color as soon as they hatch. They're a cross between the Rhode Island Red and the Barred Rock varieties. They're bred for their heartiness and their productivity, and because they mature early."
The hens at the St. Augustine Peace Garden are mateless — New York City codes forbid roosters because of their noisy crowing (car alarms, however, are permitted) — but this does not matter, to the humans at least; unmated hens will still produce an egg every 18 hours or so.
The fowl are well-fed. In addition to poultry pellets (which Brady buys along with bales of straw from the only remaining feed store in New York City, right down the block), they are given the leftovers from the school cafeteria, which in the past were just bagged up as garbage. That's urban ecology.
But there's human ecology too.
Sixth-grader Ken, age 12, is a member of the Chicken Club.
"He's a little crazy — attention-deficit," Trapp admits. "He's on meds, he's in special ed, he's a terror in the classroom, but he's a different person when he gets out there. I call it ‘chicken therapy for the soul.'"
"I like animals," Ken says. "I can tell all the chickens apart — they're just like people. I have a favorite one, too — I named her Cassandra. She always comes when I call to her."
"It's amazing," remarks Brady. "Kids who are hyperactive, who have no patience in the classroom, are patient with the chickens. They love it when the chickens pile out the henhouse door to greet them."
But there is another side. The productive life of a laying hen is about two years, which means that before they graduate, Mame and Ken will have to face the hardest fact of farming: turning the hens they have come to love into chicken soup.
Brady is unruffled at the gruesome prospect. In the spring, he'll add a pair of turkeys to the school's micro-farm; they'll be ready for slaughter by November.
"I'm not sure what next Thanksgiving will bring," he says. "There may be some heartbreak here. But kids need to experience that too. They need to know how food really gets to their table."
That teaching may come slowly. Right now, the children — and even some of the teachers — will not eat the eggs. "They think it's robbing the cradle or something," Brady guesses.
"They're learning about the cycle of life," says Trapp. "They're learning about caring and taking responsibility. And they're learning that we're all part of nature — even here in the South Bronx."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


November 20, 2008

It is ironic that after the passage of Proposition 8, the "California Marriage Protection Act," on November 4, its opponents singled out the Mormon Church as the first target of their anger. In 1846, the Mormons were forced out of Illinois by an act of the state legislature for practicing an alternative to traditional marriage, polygamy. Decades later, they were coerced both by the federal courts and by military force into repudiating this core religious belief in order to win statehood for Utah, their refuge. This fall, the church spent $20 million to influence voters to impose a single official definition of marriage on all citizens.
Wouldn't you think that both Mormons and gay-marriage advocates would recall their respective histories of persecution and exclusion at the hands of government?
What is telling about the Proposition 8 campaign and its aftermath is the resemblance to religious wars. The framers of the U.S. Constitution remembered the devastation caused by state- supported religion in Europe and wrote religious liberty into its First Amendment. Of course, this did not eliminate the restriction and even persecution of religious groups by legislatures and courts, as Mormon history readily attests, but it laid down a principle of equality and tolerance that is refining judicial decisions to this day.
The same could be true of the marriage wars. Were a state to disestablish marriage, recognizing it as a fundamental right but refusing to endorse any particular form of it, it could defuse the battles that have grown more fierce and costly with each round.
In deliberating the case for same-sex marriage last year, the California State Supreme Court considered just such a step. It asked state Attorney General Jerry Brown whether under California law, the legislature could "change the name of the legal relationship of ‘marriage' to some other name, assuming the legislation preserved all of the rights and obligations now associated with marriage" — that is, a name that could equally apply to all conjugal contracts regardless of gender. Brown responded yes, because "the words ‘marry' and ‘marriage' have no essential constitutional significance under the California Constitution."
In a brief submitted to the court on August 31, 2007, he spelled out the state's argument: "The State does not deny the significance of marriage as a social and spiritual idea; after all, marriage existed long before the State of California ever recognized it in a statute. The state does not create a marriage: From antiquity, Western society has recognized that a marriage is created by the witnessed interpersonal commitment of the two persons themselves. The state can only give a marriage standing in the law. The only institution at issue in these proceedings is the state-sanctioned regime to which the label ‘marriage' has been attached in statute."
Thus, "so long as the Legislature ensures that all rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples under the law are also available to domestic partners — including, most importantly, the right to self-declaration and public legitimation of one's life- partnership," it could "employ a ‘neutral' term to describe state-sanctioned life-partnerships regardless of the couple's sex."
Though courts both state and federal have established a fundamental right to marry, the attorney general continued, "the focus was on the relationship of the couple, not the verbiage used on state legal forms." Further, the arguments of both parties to the case that a neutral legal term would diminish the honored place of marriage in society "are not arguments of a constitutional status."
The reason both parties agreed (in opposite ways) on this point of "honor" is that both were seeking state approval of their own particular definitions of marriage. As Brown noted, "the meaning of marriage comes from the understanding that it has been given in our society." But at this point in our social history there is no universally agreed-upon meaning of the term — even within some religious groups.
With this information, the court could have taken the bold step of disestablishing marriage, letting the many and various societal groups embrace their own definitions and restricting state involvement to the administration and adjudication of a universal family contract available to all couples regardless of gender or even implied sexual activity, including dependent or interdependent blood-relatives and friends who also deserve the rights and benefits presently reserved to the married and to domestic partners.
Such a move would have turned the question of the meaning of marriage back to the social and religious communities from which the institution arose and to whom it properly belongs. Rather than detract from the honored status of marriage, it would have allowed all societal groups to honor it in their own way. It would have mooted the well-taken point that denying the term "marriage" to gay couples makes them "second-class citizens" by making all couples simply citizens, equally. Further, it would have put the capstone on the right to privacy by denying state approval to particular sexual life-styles and focusing its attention on the family unit, no matter how it is constituted — something that California family law in fact does anyway.
Instead, the court bought the honored-place argument, the one the attorney general said had no constitutional status. After 120 pages of opinion, it came down to that.
Whether or not a neutral stance would have quelled the marriage wars is hard to determine — there would have been much residual frustration on both sides for neither getting their way — but at least it would have pointed them toward an authentic recognition of the diversity in our society and encouraged everyone to respect it.


November 13, 2008

The fight for the presidency is finally over. Before turning to the future, it's always good to see how we got to the present. Here are excerpts from previous columns, beginning almost a year before the Iowa caucuses:
February 15, 2007 — So which of the pack in the presidential race will survive the shakedown? The ones who can articulate, both programmatically and personally, the new vocabulary of the common good. Single-issue candidates like family-values Brownback and anti-immigrant Tancredi are now anachronisms. Image-only candidates like Giuliani, "Mr. 9/11," will eventually be judged by the sum of their public life, not just one day of it. Hillary says she is "listening," but we are as sick of listeners as we are of Deciders. Biden, bright but neither articulate nor clean, broke his leg before leaving the gate. Obama has a vision, but is it just a vision of himself? Kucinich has the vision, but the articulation of the self-righteous. McCain and Romney run without a base. Edwards shows some daring, but carries Kerry's baggage. Al Gore is more tarred by Clinton than Hillary herself. Richardson, with his national and international expertise, could be the dark horse, if he can only stay away from Comedy Central.
January 3, 2008 — The horses are at the starting gates at last...
My bet is that not even [Super Tuesday on] February 5, nor the several primaries and caucuses that follow it, will determine the nominee of either party.... By convention time this summer, no candidate will have amassed enough delegates to enter as the winner. Then Old-time Politics ... will take over: All that ad money down the drain, only to have the nominee selected in smokeless rooms and with multiple floor votes. The convention will become the high drama it once was.
January 31, 2008 — Long before Iowa, all through that year- long string of Democratic presidential debates, I sat before the TV thinking: "Dream Team." With the exception of Marijuana Mike Gravel and Don-Quixote Dennis Kucinich, any one of those people at the podium would make a superior president....
In the short-term quest for long-term power, the dangers of bitterness and hatred increase. We the voters can only hope that the inevitable attacks will be friendly sparring and not friendly fire, and that the Dream Team will not end up as just a dream.
February 14, 2008 — And then you have voter fatigue. After a year of foreplay and the multiple climaxes of the early primaries, people may start waking up thinking it sure was nice but do I really want to spend so much time with this person?
February 28, 2008 — Over the months, the Democratic race has evolved into a microcosmal clash of the generations, a symbol of what is going on, largely unarticulated, in the country as a whole. The caucuses and primaries threw out all those graying friends of the family, Biden and Dodd and the rest, and what remained was the fundamental: the test of wills between Mom and the Kid.
July 24, 2008 — Put images of John McCain and Barack Obama side-by-side on the satellite news, and there is no doubt who gets the focus [abroad]. A different view of America emerges.... His complexion and the ethnicity of his name, as well as his youth and energy, tap into the deep well of symbol and draw up something universal, transcending the old polarities.
August 21, 2008 — Achieving effective political goals does not start with legislation, it ends with it. The way to bring about large-scale change is first to bring about small-scale change, change in individuals' attitudes, practices, and vision of themselves and their communities....
This is what Barack Obama learned from his youthful years as a community organizer in Chicago ....
If only his experience will remind him that the politicians don't own the issues, the people do.
August 28, 2008 — Now that the pieces of the Democratic presidential puzzle have been put together, the picture turns out looking like a Picasso portrait: No part of the face is in the right place....
Will the campaign emerging out of Denver be able to overcome the sense that somehow the arrangement is askew? Unless the Democrats, like a good art teacher, can reveal the beauty and the genius of their Picasso portrait by election day, people may end up voting for the devil they think they know.
September 4, 2008 — As Gustav aimed at the Gulf Coast, a third hurricane arrived from exactly the opposite direction — Alaska — and in exactly the opposite form — not a storm with human qualities but a human with storm qualities....
Palin may not finally draw very many disgruntled but issue- oriented Hillary women, but she's got even them thinking twice. Those she will draw are the non-ideological independents and undecideds, female and male, old and young, people who vote from the gut, admiring the veteran McCain yet looking for freshness, youth, and that certain feminine quality to balance him out — yin and yang.
September 17, 2008 — It was change-change-change, and we were so hungry for it we didn't bother to ask what it was exactly, we were just enamored of the very idea of it. A bold, fearless plan to redirect the country would have forced voters to make a choice for or against a real change. But the issues weren't the issue anymore.... And if you don't stand on substance, voters start thinking subliminally. A lot of White people who claim they aren't racist will turn away from him because he's Black.
October 2, 2008 — What we may see tonight [in the Biden- Palin debate] is not a political contest but a psychodrama, a playing out of various meanings of power and weakness.
October 9, 2008 — Barack Obama, who at an earlier stage of the campaign was giving many Democrats "buyer's remorse" by appearing distant and hesitant when off of his fiery stump, has turned decisive and forceful — "presidential" — in recent weeks. John McCain, by contrast, has betrayed a disconcerting dithering behind his hero's mask....
No candidate, no party will fulfill all your wishes; they either are too paralyzed by the polls or don't know what to think themselves.
But develop your wish-list anyway, and go with your gut about those personae. Then hold your nose and vote.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


November 6, 2008

On an unusually warm autumn afternoon last week, a tour group wandered around and under an immense bamboo art-work, “Clouds,” in the courtyard of the century-old conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden here in the Bronx. Supported by six-inch-thick logs of timber bamboo, the installation is a dense canopy of hundreds of stout sticks and curly shavings 20 feet tall and 50 feet long, seemingly chaotic but tightly geometrical, nothing rounded, nothing fleecy, nothing at all resembling clouds.
That is the point.
The gray-haired Anglo docent told the group that the artist, Tetsunori Kawana, built it on that spot in ten days last month, and that in mid-November it would be dismantled and tossed on the garden’s compost pile.
A woman gasped. “That’s terrible!” she cried. “It’s so impressive! Can’t they move it someplace else on the grounds so people can enjoy it for years?”
“I agree,” said the docent. “I’ll mention it to the curator.”
But that is the point, too.
The installation is one facet of Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum, a month-long tribute to the chrysanthemum festivals of Japan; it ends November 16. Surrounding “Clouds” in the expansive conservatory courtyard are stands of young bamboo, sculpted Japanese maples in fiery fall color, flower-drenched rock gardens, groves of bonsai trees, and most noteworthy of all, four traditional three-sided bamboo pavilions festooned with silk curtains and braided ropes, sheltering the most spectacular display of chrysanthemums outside Japan.
The chrysanthemum — the kiku — is the Japanese imperial flower, introduced from China by Buddhist monks 1400 years ago. As with bonsai, in which trees that in nature grow tall and wild are miniaturized by confined potting and stylized by wire restraints, this simple, cheerful plant with its showy little flowers has been turned into an object of rare, even grotesque beauty. Staring at the elaborate arrangement of these living things inside the pavilions, you can glimpse the mind of Zen.
Cultivation of the chrysanthemum for exotic display has been going on in Japan for centuries, formerly for the viewing pleasure of the royal court. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, once part of the imperial palace complex, showcases this art most lavishly, but the autumn chrysanthemum festival, like the celebration of the cherry blossoms in the spring, is a national event, and both professionals and hobbyists show off their work in gardens and parks everywhere.
Chrysanthemums common in America are stubby round shrubs with profuse daisy-like blooms that brighten the landscape in the dark days of fall. The Japanese value this type too, but through selective breeding they have developed cultivars producing flowers of most atypical sizes and shapes — pompoms eight inches wide, for example, and specimens with spindly, spider-legged petals in variegated colors. But it is not so much the variety of the plants, but how they are trained for display, that pushes Japanese chrysanthemum-growing beyond horticulture into living art.
Four examples of this art are represented in the exhibition; they were home-grown at the NYBG greenhouses under the supervision of Yuki Kurashina, a young Japanese-American woman who apprenticed with the kiku masters at the Shinjuku Gyoen. For the kengai (“cascade”) display, a common mum is woven through a draping wire mesh; the flowers bloom in a waterfall of color. For the ozukuri (“thousand-blooms”) pattern, an individual cutting is meticulously pruned and pinched to produce hundreds of long branches which are strung into a dome-shaped frame to show off each large flower blooming at the branches’ tips. For the ogiku (“single stem”) arrangement, dozens of plants have all their side growth cut away to put forth a single huge bloom atop a six-foot stem and then are placed in color-coded rows to look like ranks of parading soldiers. And for the shino-tsukuri type, spidery-flowered varieties are trained up trellises for a dense vertical effect — its name means “driving rain.”
Western eyes boggle at the bizarre beauty of these displays (How do people do this?), made all the more bizarre with the knowledge that each one of these plants has been worked on daily by a team of specialists for almost a year, to produce flowers that will last a couple weeks at most (Why do they do this?).
The answer lies in Zen.
A fundamental teaching of the Buddha is the impermanence of all things. The everyday mind takes what it sees as real — the shapes and forms of things supposedly reveal their underlying essences: humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects all seem to have substance. The Buddha-mind recognizes that things we call real have no more substance than ghosts or fantasies; they are merely the random coming together and pulling apart of qualities, nothing more.
The same applies to time. Neither past nor future actually exists except in our imagination, yet they make us miserable with regret and anxiety.
To be set free from the illusions of space and time and live at the still-point of the present moment, the mind and senses must be jarred into realizing that things are not only not what they seem but they aren’t anything at all.
In words, this is done with the koan or riddle: What is the sound of one hand clapping? The Zen garden, like the one represented in this exhibition, is a sensory koan: Rushing rivers are formed of dry sand, and run without moving. Majestic trees are tortured to grow just one foot tall, and generations of caretakers keep them flourishing through a hundred or more seasons. Waterfalls and driving rains become sprays of chrysanthemums, cultured for a year to bloom for two weeks and then die. Clouds are constructed of bamboo sticks and composted after barely a month.
This surreal world turns the categories of the mind upside-down, pointing the viewer — the participant, really — beyond appearances to behold formless, timeless reality itself.
The gasping lady in the courtyard longs for permanence, while the banks of mums all around her are silently speaking. Nothing gold can stay.

(Photos and a video of this exhibition are on the Garden’s website, nybg.org. A fascinating video of the “Clouds” installation is posted on vimeo.com; in the Search box at the site, type in “Tetsunori Kawana.”)

Monday, October 27, 2008


October 30, 2008

Voting in America, while a public duty, is an intensely private act. It is something akin to how the psychologist William James defined religion: "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude." When you enter the polling booth and draw the curtain, you are utterly alone.
It was not always so. In an eye-opening article in The New Yorker of October 13, Jill Lepore describes the evolution of voting procedures in the United States, from manifestly public expressions of preference by voice vote or by counting heads in a candidate's corner of the polling place — much like caucus states conduct their party elections to this day — to the secret ballot, first devised in Australia in 1856, which only became the universal norm for general elections in this country at the end of the nineteenth century. The "Australian ballot," as it was called, generated much debate at the time, both here and abroad. When Britain was considering the measure in the 1860's, the political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that voting privately would undermine individual accountability; would you want your legislators voting on bills anonymously instead of by roll-call? "Only if a man votes ‘under the eye and criticism of the public,'" Lepore writes, quoting Mill, "will he put public interest above his own." Mill's critics contended that legislatures are qualitatively different from electorates because their members share equal power. In a general election, Lepore summarizes, "the powerless will always be prevailed upon by the powerful; only secrecy can protect them from bribery and bullying." The critics prevailed; Britain went to the secret ballot in 1872.
In at least one respect, Mill was right. Without having to stand up and be counted, voters can be most capricious; behind the curtain, anything can happen. This is why pre-election polling is so often an unreliable predictor. Put on the spot over the telephone, people will say the first thing that comes to mind, or what they think the pollster wants to hear — or they'll just hang up. In the booth, they are left with their own decision, in their own solitude.
In this election especially, there may be many more undecideds than the surveys show. They will arrive at the polling place beset by "feelings, acts, and experiences" stored up in their brains over two years-plus of constant campaigning, now compressed into a few anxious seconds. They will process all accumulated data partly rationally, partly intuitively, partly emotionally, in the stream of their consciousness:
Republican, Vietnam hero, experienced, creative, maverick, spontaneous, impetuous, old, disabled, sloganeering, "my friends," White; anti-abortion, Keaton Five, surge-is-working, hundred years in Iraq, gas-tax holiday, Bush, Country First, Joe the Plumber, change, Cindy and the seven homes, "that one," socialized medicine, suspend campaign to solve fiscal crisis, flip-flop, trickle-down, Reagan...
Democrat, Black, youthful, determined, quick of mind, inexperienced, opportunistic, demagogue, Hillary-spoiler, community organizer, Leroy Brown, Jeremiah Wright, Weatherman Bomber, White mother, Hussein, Oprah, Teddy, Caroline, "thatone," Black; yes-we-can, change, pro-abortion rights, no preconditions, failed Bush policy, timetable for withdrawal, lipstick on a pig, mortgage relief, public works projects, solar and wind, health-care gradualist, Black...
Republican, hockey mom, you-betcha, young and perky, terminally fluffy, son in Iraq, son with Down syndrome, campaign- funded clothes-horse, apostate Catholic, witch-hunting church, Tina Feye; anti-abortion, drill-baby-drill, Putin rearing head over Alaska, less Rove/more rogue, 3 a.m. phone call, Katie Couric, White...
Democrat, Scranton and Wilmington, Amtrak commuter, Amtrak non-supporter, widower, avuncular, loose-lipped, Catholic; pro- abortion rights, foreign-policy wonk, 35-year Washington insider, partition Iraq, White.
Take deep breath. Push lever, touch screen, fill in bubble. Pull back curtain. Go home.
Sigh in relief. Tell no one. Buyer's remorse.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


October 23, 2008

The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner is a unique event in American politics. Held every October for the last 63 years, it draws major figures of all parties and persuasions to have a good time for a good cause. Its keynote speakers have included eleven presidents or presidents-to-be, foreign leaders, diplomats, generals, entertainers, and broadcasters. The dinner gets the most attention in presidential election years. Beginning in 1960 with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, five pairs of opposing candidates have jointly shared the dias, culminating last Thursday with John McCain and Barack Obama, fresh from their testy debate the previous night.
Unlike the frivolous froth of the Gridiron Club and the Washington Correspondents Association dinners, the Al Smith bash is light-hearted without being light-headed. It affords speakers the momentary opportunity to relax and joke about themselves and their rivals, but also to interject words of inspiration and principle above the usual partisan sloganeering. The Archbishop of New York shares their table, and the proceeds of the event help to fund the work of Catholic Charities of New York, which serves the poor and distressed regardless of their religion. (This year, the $1,000-a-plate white-tie affair at the Waldorf Astoria raised nearly four million dollars.)
The dinner was initiated in 1945 by Archbishop Francis Spellman, arguably the most powerful political personage in New York City next to the mayor, to honor the memory of New York Governor Al Smith, who had died the previous year. Born in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1873, Smith had no formal education beyond elementary school, yet with his quick wit and shrewd political sense rose rapidly through the ranks of the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine and was elected governor in 1918. Defeated in 1920, he aligned himself with the progressive wing of the party and subsequently regained the governorship in 1922, serving three more terms. His impassioned efforts on behalf of the poor and working classes earned him national recognition, and in 1928 he was nominated to run for president against Republican bureaucrat Herbert Hoover — who beat him in a landslide.
Smith's loss has often been attributed to "the three P's": prosperity, prohibition, and prejudice. His warnings of impending disasters in agriculture, industry, and finance went unheeded. His thinly-veiled "neutrality" on Prohibition — as well as his Irish roots — made him suspect among the drys. And his Catholic faith turned many against him in fear. Despite declaring his belief in "absolute freedom of conscience for all" and "the absolute separation of Church and State," anti-Catholic groups nationwide depicted him as a pawn of the Vatican. In one curious but not atypical example, one flyer showed a photo of Smith beside New York's Cardinal Patrick Hayes decked out in his medieval regalia at the 1927 dedication of the New York-New Jersey Holland Tunnel, with a caption claiming the tunnel was the passageway through which the pope would secretly enter the United States and set himself up in the Smith White House.
Following his defeat, Smith turned to business. As president of Empire State, Inc., he masterminded the construction of the Empire State Building in just 13 months in 1930-31. After vying unsuccessfully with Franklin Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination, he left elective politics for good.
Al Smith's image as "the Happy Warrior," his dedication to social justice, and his relentless and far-sighted opposition to racial and religious bigotry have not been lost on those chosen to speak at the gala for the foundation he established and his descendants have perpetuated. In 1960, with the election just weeks away and facing anti-Catholic sentiment reminiscent of Smith's own campaign, John Kennedy joined with his opponent Richard Nixon to joke amicably about themselves and each other, to acknowledge the country's debt to Smith, and to deplore religious intolerance. Forty-eight years later, with the issue of race still in play, McCain and Obama again invoked Smith's spirit with good humor and uncommon decency.
Surveying the scene from wherever he is in the cosmos, Al Smith must have been enormously pleased.
Eighty years ago this November, as the dismal election results came in, Smith sent a one-word telegram to Pope Pius XI at the Vatican: "Unpack."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


October 9, 2008

The presidential campaigns have been going on for so long that not only do many of us not remember when they started, we can’t imagine that they’ll ever end.
But end they will. In less than a month, the airwaves and cablewaves will take on the eerie stillness of an armistice, when the boom of cannon cease and the song of birds is heard again, when the relentless roar of the candidates’ commercials abruptly stops and the soothing tones of ads for curing erectile dysfunction and osteoporosis take their place.
Historians of polling say that most undecided voters solidify their choices about a month before an election. The candidates have been in our homes, endlessly jabbering to us through our TV sets, for so many years that they are like neighbors, and like neighbors, we size them up by gut: Can we trust them? Can we rely on them? Are we comfortable with them? Will we invite them over for dinner or keep them at arm’s length?
In the closing days of a campaign, it’s as much about personalities as about policies. In Latin, a persona was the mask that actors wore in Greek and Roman plays to represent their characters. Per-sona literally means "sound-through." What we see on our TV screens are the candidates’ masks, their personae; somehow we have to judge what’s behind them.
We’ve been seeing some interesting examples of personae of late. Barack Obama, who at an earlier stage of the campaign was giving many Democrats "buyer’s remorse" by appearing distant and hesitant when off of his fiery stump, has turned decisive and forceful — "presidential" — in recent weeks. John McCain, by contrast, has betrayed a disconcerting dithering behind his hero’s mask. Most astonishingly, Sarah Palin’s persona retrieved its scrappy, homey form at the debate with Joe Biden, not only redeeming her candidacy but making some people think it’s now a Palin/McCain ticket instead of the other way around.
What’s driven people to scrutinize personae over policies at this time more than ever is the global financial meltdown. The situation of the economy is so contorted and confusing that in the short run the voter has to choose a president based on perceived "leadership qualities" rather than solid proposals, of which there are few. It was much the same in the 1932 contest between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, in times of similar economic peril and uncertainty: Nobody was quite sure what they were voting for, but everybody was sure whom they were voting for. Roosevelt powerfully supplied the what just days after his inauguration; we can only hope against hope for something of the same.
No matter how they feel about the candidates’ personae, voters had better use that now-legendary kitchen table of theirs to lay out the range of issues and think them through on their own — call it the "Straight-Thought Express." Neither candidate nor their parties have presented the bold plans of action that are desperately needed — the Democrats are typically timid and the Republicans are simply confused — but we can develop our own wish-lists and vote for the candidate and the party that seem to offer the best chance of realizing them, however haltingly.
On the economy: What do you now believe about regulation and deregulation? How free should a free market be? How much social security (in lower case) should every person be guaranteed? Should basic saving and first-home borrowing be simple, secure, and available to all, or should people be forced to make market decisions they can’t possibly understand?
On health care: Ditto. Should everyone have equal access to a simple, universal system, or should they have to wade through endless and often deceptive "options" fabricated by insurance middlemen?
On energy and transportation: Should the government enact a comprehensive policy that favors renewable energy sources over fossil fuels, and rail transportation over highways and air?
On taxes: Should taxes be directly linked to expenditures, instead of cutting the first while increasing the second? Would you be willing to bear higher taxes for health care and transportation, for example, rather than being "taxed" by the insurance companies and oil conglomerates?
On the Supreme Court: Given that the future president will appoint several new justices, do you want a court that is ideologically lopsided, or one that has to deliberate to strike a balance in its decisions?
On foreign policy: Is Iraq a sovereign country or a vassal state? Is Afghanistan a quicksand for the U.S. as it was for the U.S.S.R.? Can Cuba best be liberated by free trade? Can the U.S. broker a just and even-handed resolution to the Israel/Palestine stalemate? Are establishing diplomatic relations, opening trade, and presenting a non-belligerent stance actually the best ways to destabilize the dictators in Iran and North Korea?
That’s hardly the end to the questions, either. You may have to add another leaf to your table.
No candidate, no party will fulfill all your wishes; they either are too paralyzed by the polls or don’t know what to think themselves.
But develop your wish-list anyway, and go with your gut about those personae. Then hold your nose and vote.

Friday, October 3, 2008


October 2, 2008

I admit that I was like many others in the country who tuned into the first McCain-Obama debate last Friday: I tuned out halfway through. Having all those sound-bites from their stump speeches aggregated into one enormous mega-bite was just too much to bear.
I might do the same for tonight’s vice-presidential debate too, but for a different reason: The pathos of it may be too much to bear.
A few columns back, I wrote that Sarah Palin had hit the national scene like a hurricane, overturning conventional (and convention) wisdom and throwing presidential politics into disarray: Would she exhibit exceptional insight and judgment, compensating for her paucity of experience? Could she get up to speed on the issues in time for the debate with Joe Biden — and beyond? Would her gender alone be able to attract disaffected Hillary voters, despite her opposite opinions on just about every subject? Would she make McCain look even older and voters even more frightened of the Unthinkable, now compounded with a second Unthinkable that she’d have to step into his shoes?
After a month on the campaign trail, often appearing as Maverick’s sidekick to draw out the curious and energize his rallies, sometimes appearing on her own to give the same "Thanks-but-no-thanks" speech over and over, and occasionally appearing on TV interviews to stutter and sputter, some of her virginal appeal may be waning. She’s holding her evangelical base, of course, and still drawing out the curious, but even some in her own party are recoiling in embarrassment, and in dread of what she might do next. Kathleen Parker of the conservative National Review has called on her to quit the race for the good of the ticket.
The debate with Biden might be the clincher. New York Times columnist William Kristol, editor of the neocon Weekly Standard, thinks that Palin’s problem is repression: Her true self is being inhibited by "the former Bush aides brought in to handle her." McCain, he writes, "needs to free her to use her political talents and communicate in her own voice."
Perhaps he is right. Perhaps she was so befuddled in her interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric because she was over-scripted. Perhaps, left to be the Sarah Barracuda of old, she can overcome that feeling of pity most of us experienced as we watched her squirm.
But Biden has his own problem. Speaking of handling, how will he handle her? He’s had 30 years of senatorial experience in domestic and foreign policy, starting his learning curve when she was a teenager. He also has the richly deserved reputation for the thoughtless and outlandish remark. Will he attack her without mercy? Will he snicker at her naïveté? Will he keep his distance and wait for her to sink her own ship? Will he be deferential? Can he be deferential? He may destroy his objectively overwhelming advantage with a couple shots from his own loose cannon.
Biden’s challenge here is not only to be political but to be "politic," which Webster’s defines as "shrewdly tactful." He can’t bash her as he’s been bashing McCain on the stump, however much her statements may beg for it. He can’t just ignore her as Obama has done — that’s impossible for him. He has to tack carefully because she is not just a politician, she is a symbol, and a unique one at that. Unlike the hard-bitten Hilary, the true pit bull with lipstick, Palin comes across as childlike and vulnerable, and the slightest misspoken word or look from Biden may trigger a backlash of negativity against him and of sympathy for her.
Kristol argues that Palin will acquit herself in the debate if she can "dispatch quickly any queries about herself, and confidently assert that of course she’s qualified to be vice president" — and then go on to attack Obama. It may not be that easy.
What we may see tonight is not a political contest but a psychodrama, a playing out of various meanings of power and weakness. We may find ourselves cringing and changing the channel. Or we may find ourselves transfixed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


September 24, 2008

Last week, as Lehman Brothers imploded, Merrill Lynch was being absorbed by Bank of America, and sub-prime bundlers were calling in their default credit swaps with AIG, my two sisters and I exchanged phone calls on the history of banking regulation. Our own, that is.
Somewhere in the late 1950’s, when we were in single digits of age, our mother walked us up a few blocks from our home in Norwalk to open savings accounts for us at Norwalk Savings and Loan. It was the beginning of our financial life.
"Mom and Dad were children of the Depression," said my sister Joanie, who now lives in Manhattan Beach. "Saving money was very important to them, and they wanted to get us into the habit early."
Our initial transaction, as I remember it, was genuinely personal. The young bank officer in his sharp suit and tie sat us down around a huge oaken desk, took three $20 bills from Mom, and in return presented us with magnificent grownups’ passbooks in which he had written our opening balance. Then he gave us a short pep-talk on saving our money.
"He also gave us little see-through piggy banks," remembered Jeannie, now of Mission Viejo. "That really impressed me then. I think I may still have mine around somewhere."
We all got into the savings habit. "By the time we graduated from high school," Joanie said, "Jeannie and I had enough to pay cash for a new Volkswagen."
Watching my money grow became an obsession. With a full piggy bank or a fistful of crisp dollar bills from birthday or Christmas, I’d enter that temple of commerce, stand on tiptoe at the teller’s cage, and exchange it all for numbers handwritten in my passbook. When I got to decimals in school, I’d calculate the compounded interest myself and scrupulously check it against the bank’s figures.
The details of these childhood recollections may be a bit overdrawn, so to speak, but they all conjure up one basic feeling: confidence. In our community, the bank was second only to the church in terms of stability. Banks and S&L’s were primarily local businesses — Norwalk Savings had no branches — that drew their funds from neighbors’ deposits and loans. Savers got a steady five percent return. Loans were straightforward — no adjustables, no balloon payments — and their interest rates were capped by usury laws. Saving and borrowing from banks was easily understood and absolutely reliable.
As my father tirelessly pointed out in our dinner-table discussions, it was the reforms of the New Deal that had made things so. As I found out somewhat later, the Glass-Steagall Acts of 1933 and 1935 separated low-risk depository banking from high-risk investment banking, controlled speculation by confining commercial banks within state lines, regulated interest rates on savings accounts and loans, and guaranteed deposits through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Within these structures, bank panics, which my parents had experienced first-hand as young adults in 1933, would never happen again.
The FDIC is still in place, of course, and then some — the Bush administration is now proposing to extend its coverage to money-market accounts — but its surrounding mechanisms, which were what made it unlikely it would ever be used, have gradually been dismantled over the last 30 years.
Now, interest on savings has become so laughable (last month my bank, on what it calls its "High-Yield" savings account, paid me 0.4%) that you might as well opt for your mattress as a comparable savings instrument. Interest on your credit-card debt is double-digit, and adjustable-rate mortgages beg foreclosure. And with interstate and worldwide commercial banking, the loan you signed at your local branch of Behemoth Bank has probably been sliced and bundled and bought by China.
What was lost in the march to deregulation in banking was a fundamental principle of the New Deal reforms: providing simple and assured vehicles for ordinary people to save and borrow. The philosophy of deregulation supposedly trusts that all people are wise and make good decisions, but what it really believes is that those who are simple and make bad decisions get what they deserve. This philosophy has manifested itself well beyond banking, in proposals to privatize Social Security and in offering those bewildering "options" on Medicare drugs.
The Reagan belief that government can’t solve problems because government is the problem has had a long run, but the present financial crisis may at last be putting the lie to it. In the face of a near panic, the country may be coming round to see, as it did in the 1930’s, that government is the most effective agent to promote the common good. In terms of personal economics, people may once again demand a return to stability in commercial banking: not "safety nets," not bailouts, but a reliable and rewarding system for saving and for borrowing, so that ordinary risk-averse folk, and even their children, can succeed not on craftiness but on will-power alone.
The worldwide financial system today is like electricity — hardly anybody knows how it works, but everybody expects that when they flip the switch the light will come on. It’s that sense of confidence and reliability that the Democrats should make the keystone of the upcoming elections. There would be no more effective TV ads than photos of the Depression-era bank panic, clips from an FDR speech, and the single tag-line: "Vote Democratic."
"Get this!" my sister Jeannie told me. "I went into Home Savings the other day, and what were they giving away for opening a new account? Electric screwdrivers! Then I went into my B of A branch, and what did they have at the door? A big bowl of suckers!"
You wonder if the banks saw the irony. Jeannie sure did.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I was having a lazy lunch at a sidewalk cafe in the Village the other day, soaking up the last of the summer’s warmth, reading Plotinus.
"Excuse me, sir."
"Got any spare change?"
I looked up from my Cobb salad. It was a young Black man in sockless sneakers, cargo shorts, and a faded Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.
"Change? I’m sick of that word. I’m reading about immutability."
"I don’t mean change, I mean change. You know, jingle-jangle."
"Yeah, like my nerves. Well, since you brought up the subject, are you for Obama change or McCain change?"
"Dunkin’ Donuts change."
"Oh, you switched from Starbucks too. Surest sign of a faltering economy."
"Don’t waste my time, Mistah. Either you got it or you don’t."
"I don’t. I don’t got it and I don’t get it. Back in January, it was all so clear. Obama was that fresh face with fresh ideas we’d been longing for, and African-American too. We were sick of Bush in particular and Republicans in general. We desperately wanted out of Iraq, we wanted action on health care, we wanted a government that actually worked, for a change. Damn it, I’m saying it myself now. Hillary wanted the same things, but she wasn’t change-enough — too Establishment, too practical, too calculating, too Bill. ‘Change’ began to mean personalities, not positions. Even Teddy and Caroline rejected her. They saw in Obama the new New Frontier with that go-to-the-moon mentality. They saw the new Camelot. They saw Martin Luther King’s dream realized at last."
"My feet."
"My foot! Sorry, want to sit down? That was impolite of me. Want something? Burgers are good here."
"Coffee’s fine, thanks. Go on."
"Yeah. It was change-change-change, and we were so hungry for it we didn’t bother to ask what it was exactly, we were just enamored of the very idea of it. A bold, fearless plan to redirect the country would have forced voters to make a choice for or against a real change. But the issues weren’t the issue anymore. And the more Obama tacked to the center and hauled out the old pandering clichés, the more he began to look like your ordinary politician, except with a silver tongue. And if you don’t stand on substance, voters start thinking subliminally. A lot of White people who claim they aren’t racist will turn away from him because he’s Black."
"You’re telling me."
"Then enter McCain, that old war-horse, painting himself as Mr. Change. His positions are all Bush Lite, but by the time of the convention that didn’t matter, and he knew it. So to shore up his emotive base on the Christian right and try to cop the Hillary vote, he got Sarah Palin to run with him. She’s the governor of Alaska."
"That’s out there."
"In more ways than one. It was a brilliant stroke. It’s muddied up the lines all over the place. Home-schoolers are cheering, even though she’s never home. Hillary supporters are shifting over, even though Palin is Hillary’s opposite both on experience and on the issues. Undecided men are looking at her because her voice reminds them of some hyper high-school girlfriend, and she doesn’t wear pantsuits."
"That’s change."
"You bet it is, and the worst kind. It’s the real Bridge to Nowhere. But she’s put the sizzle on his tough old steak."
"Good metaphor, man. They call him a maverick, right? But in the Old West, a maverick was an unbranded steer. When I was a kid, I saw some classic TV shows about that on Nick at Nite."
"Exactly. And that’s why he may pull this off. He claims he can run with either herd, so he can ‘get things done’ in Washington."
"But isn’t he reactionary on almost everything?"
"I told you, that doesn’t matter. It’s the image. People think he’s James Garner or something. But if they put him in, they’ll find out who he really is."
"I see. You can put lipstick on McCain, but he’s still McCain."
"I wish I’d said that. So where were we? Have you got any spare change?"
"Not me. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."
"Excuse me?"
"‘The more things change, the more ...’"
"‘... they remain the same.’ I knew that. You’re a hell of a panhandler."
"Actually, I’m a journalism student at NYU, researching a story. I think I just found one."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


September 11, 2008

The memories, now that I’ve decided to write about the subject, come back in horrific floods: the morning news bulletin that a plane had collided with one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center and the initial talk of a "terrible accident"; then a second plane, and talk of terrorism; fuzzy long-distance shots of people jumping stories to their deaths, then the imploding towers; further bulletins of planes crashing into the Pentagon and some field in Pennsylvania; the column of smoke visible for days from the rooftops of the Bronx, ten miles to the north; the endless TV replays interspersed with live footage of people wandering dazed on the downtown streets with photos of the missing; the tolling bell and candle-light service at St. Augustine Catholic Church here, two days after the tragedy; the old woman who took my hand and whispered, "It’s Judgment Day."
There were few physical casualties here in the South Bronx, but everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who had died in the cataclysm. A teacher at St. Augustine School, a former police officer, lost her sister in the towers and broke apart; after five years on disability, she returned to teaching, sharing her story of overcoming grief with hope and hatred with love.
Keith Outlaw, the young African-American pastor of St. Augustine’s, carried out his duties in a haze. "For days and days," he told me recently, "people would come to me in tears, and I tried to be strong for them. Then when they left I’d cry. I was really hurting. I cried so much during that whole period. It was beyond what we could ever imagine."
He did his part.
"When they called for clergy to bless remains in the morgues," he said, "I signed up. But so many had volunteered that I was pushed back to the second week. When I finally got there, I prepared myself to see bodies or large body parts, and the staff there warned us and gave us special headgear for the stench — but I didn’t need it. What came through by that time was just little bits of bone — the biggest I saw was about five or six inches long. There was no stench because there was no flesh — all the bones looked like they’d been in the desert for years. The doctor on duty told me the fire was like a thousand degrees — they were cooked.
"Of course at that point, they couldn’t identify the persons those bones belonged to, so there wasn’t much to be done. I said some prayers and that was it."
Jesus taught his followers to love and forgive those who hate them. How did he feel at the time?
"The love and forgiveness part was never there, to be honest. I was very angry and very hurt: How could they do this to them?"
"The only good thing I can say is that it really united people. Here in New York, the mood was so different from usual. People were actually kind to each other. We weren’t rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, Catholics or even Muslims — we were all Americans."
It was the small things that often spoke the loudest to him.
"I remember watching a Red Sox-Yankee game in Boston that fall, and some fans unveiled a banner that read, ‘The Red Sox Love New York.’ Has that ever happened before or since?"
Another small thing: "I remember buying bananas from Colombia or someplace around that time, and the little sticker on them had the Colombian and U.S. flags crossed together and the words, ‘We are with you.’ We had the whole world behind us then.
"That was until Iraq. We were all united until Bush finished us off."
I would say that Iraq didn’t start the finishing off; that had been going on almost from the beginning.
It was a time of national trauma, and as with individual trauma, the country felt both angry and helpless at once, and looked to their leaders for support and guidance. As the woman said, it seemed like Judgment Day. But it was not so much a day of judgment as it was a day for judgment, the ability of true leaders to accurately evaluate a situation in the midst of the chaos, take visionary action, and inspire hope and trust. In the years following the tragedy, what we got from our leaders was the Office of Homeland Security, the Orange Alerts that only heightened the trauma, the squandering of the enormous capital of good will by an abrasive, go-it-alone foreign policy — and then Iraq, and domestic surveillance, and torture, and military tribunals, to all of which the country and its legislators passively acceded: the sure signs of ongoing trauma.
It’s been seven years, and Keith Outlaw continues to hurt.
"There’s still a wound there that probably will heal in time," he told me. "It’s less painful now, but it opens again every September."
Personally and politically, 9/11 is not behind us yet.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


September 4, 2008

Why are hurricanes given names? Long before the National Weather Service began doing it alphabetically in 1950, the colonial Spanish had done it using saints’ names, and in fact borrowed the word itself from the Mayan-Carib storm-god, Hurican.
It’s understandable. Hurricanes have a kind of organic life, and like certain animals, they remind us of ourselves: They are born; they grow up; some stay weak, others become powerful; they often behave erratically and destructively; they get old; they die — or more correctly, just fade away.
America’s most recent brushes with hurricanes have been eerily anthropomorphic. Three years ago, the one called Katrina laid New Orleans low and issued an indictment of the Bush administration’s negligence and incompetence better than any human whistle-blower ever could. To mark the anniversary almost to the day, Gustav appeared like some Nordic god to render judgment on the Republican party assembled in convention.
The plans of the gods often backfire, however. Though Gustav brought the whole Katrina nightmare and the government’s bumbling and often heartless response back to national consciousness, the hurricane also provided the Republicans unexpected opportunities: first, to knock their chief liabilities, the despised president and his conniving mentor Cheney off the St. Paul stage; second, to put a human face on the convention, turning it from the usual self-absorbed hoopla to a telethon for disaster relief, like Jerry Lewis was doing for muscular dystrophy at the same time; and third, to allow John McCain to project for the voting public his future on-the-ball and caring presidency by flying down to Mississippi to simulate taking matters in hand.
As Gustav aimed at the Gulf Coast, a third hurricane arrived from exactly the opposite direction — Alaska — and in exactly the opposite form — not a storm with human qualities but a human with storm qualities. As soon as she hit the mainland, Sarah Palin blew the shingles off presidential politics. Like all hurricanes, she started as a mild disturbance in an obscure place; few bothered to track her. But in the space of a few days she had become a Category Four, destroying the Democrats’ plans and forcing the temporary evacuation of pundits and strategists to firmer, if not higher, ground.
The gales now blow every which way. If McCain had chosen a male with the identical set of ideological credentials — evangelical Christian, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, pro-drilling in wildlife refuges (Mike Huckabee, for instance), he’d have predictably solidified his conservative base and also predictably lost many swing-voters to Obama, a relatively simple cost-benefit calculation. But a young female throws everything into disarray. Palin may not finally draw very many disgruntled but issue-oriented Hillary women, but she’s got even them thinking twice. Those she will draw are the non-ideological independents and undecideds, female and male, old and young, people who vote from the gut, admiring the veteran McCain yet looking for freshness, youth, and that certain feminine quality to balance him out — yin and yang.
Hurricane Sarah has also blown to bits the "experience" issue. After all the harangues against Obama’s callowness, and despite McCain’s lame assertions that Palin as governor and former mayor has the "executive experience" that his legislator-opponents lack (he, the lifetime legislator, of course lacks it too), this woman clearly would not be ready on Day One; Obama looks like an aged sage next to her. She could possibly hold her own on domestic questions, but on foreign policy she’s swimming entirely beyond her depth; her learning curve will be as steep as it gets with just a few weeks to bone up to debate Joe Biden. McCain may be thinking of grooming her to lead a new generation of Republicans made in his image by giving her the task of cleaning up corruption and waste in the federal bureaucracy as she has been doing in Alaska. But what if the grooming is interrupted by the unthinkable, which in constitutional terms is what the vice presidency is for? If that occurs, what the country will get is an appointed, not elected, vice president to be her regent.
Finally, at least for now, there are all those tornadoes that continue to spin off her personal life, upending ideological preconceptions like so many mobile homes. People, for example, find it admirable that she exercised her right to choose by choosing to have her Down-syndrome baby, but disturbing that she’s forsaking the demands of his care for the demands of a run for national office. They find it socially typical that her teenage daughter is pregnant, yet ask themselves if for all her family values she’s not just another absentee mom. And then there’s that Alaska state senate investigation of whether she spitefully fired her public safety commissioner for not firing her estranged former brother-in-law, a state trooper.
Just when you think you’ve got things straight, another cross-wind knocks you over.
Right now, the peaceful eye of Hurricane Sarah is moving over the St. Paul convention center, but what will happen next? Like Hurricane Gustav, she may quickly turn into an un-tropical depression without doing great damage. On the other hand, fueled by the hot and murky waters of politics and the press, new furies may be yet to come.
Meanwhile, Obama and Co. are hunkered down in hurricane central, sifting through the latest bulletins and devising contingency plans.


August 28, 2008

Now that the pieces of the Democratic presidential puzzle have been put together, the picture turns out looking like a Picasso portrait: No part of the face is in the right place.
A year ago — or was it two? — when the pieces were all jumbled around, you may have expected that by convention time you’d see Hillary Clinton assuming the mantle of the beloved Bill, with the young and charismatic Barack Obama by her side, eager to be tested and tutored for the top spot eight years hence — the makings of an enduring Democratic dominance. Surrounding them, you’d see Senator Joe Biden, ready to lead the State Department, and the host of other eminently qualified primary candidates — John Edwards now excepted — poised to compose an illustrious, coherent cabinet.
Instead, you see the callow Obama at the center, the hoary Biden at his side, and the Clintons in the corner, relegated to symbolic votes and prime-time speeches.
Amidst the confetti and the roar of the crowd, the array on display in the Denver stadium may prick a pang of doubt in more than one Democratic heart. After all those debates and the retail politicking and the profligate campaign ads, could the (slim) majority of primary voters have gotten it wrong? Were they so absorbed in the intra-party drama that they could not see the realities of the national fight?
The picture only began to seem seriously out of whack at the Obama-Biden photo op last Saturday. Seeing them locked in the stereotypical candidates’ embrace, the elder statesman and the junior Senator, you couldn’t help wondering whether the Clintons were right. Months and months of allusions to Obama’s inexperience, supposedly disposed of by the results of the primaries, came haunting the brain like a 3 a.m. nightmare. So it might be true after all: Do the Democrats need a Cheney of their own to mentor their Decider? Will all the talk of new-generation politics and that stand-alone word "change," always more rhetorical than real, sparkle like fireworks in the Colorado sky — and vanish?
Obama’s own section of the puzzle is itself composed of many pieces which voters, even after two years of trying, still can’t assemble. Incredibly, the pollsters continue to find that large numbers of the electorate "don’t know who he is." Why? — His life’s journey has been spread before them insistently by the campaign and the media. Partly it may be insidious, subconscious racism, the kind that makes Whites look through Blacks instead of at them: the Invisible Man. But partly it may be Obama’s particular personality, where the fiery charisma he displays on the stump turns to a stutter in the interview or debate. Unlike the ironic and impish John Kennedy, the ebullient and engaging Bill Clinton, or the alliterative and incisive Jesse Jackson, Obama’s off-the-cuff presence is distant and humorless, almost robotic. In that respect, even many Blacks can’t figure him out: the color is right, but where is the soul?
Given the level of national disgust at the Bush administration and the general sympathy toward Democratic positions on major issues, Obama should now have a runaway lead in the polls; as it is, he’s neck-and-neck with McCain. Will the campaign emerging out of Denver be able to overcome the sense that somehow the arrangement is askew? Unless the Democrats, like a good art teacher, can reveal the beauty and the genius of their Picasso portrait by election day, people may end up voting for the devil they think they know.


August 21, 2008

Achieving effective political goals does not start with legislation, it ends with it. The way to bring about large-scale change is first to bring about small-scale change, change in individuals’ attitudes, practices, and vision of themselves and their communities. The sense of personal ownership of an issue is a powerful motivator, and it’s contagious, spreading from family to family and turning into political action.
This is what Barack Obama learned from his youthful years as a community organizer in Chicago, and it’s a major reason for the success of his quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though it has since hardened into the more-or-less typical political machine, his campaign started, you recall, as a movement, drawing its fire (and its dollars) from many thousands of people disillusioned by the system yet confident in the democratic process. Obama’s yes-we-can approach invited them to regain a personal stake in public decision-making.
The results of effective grass-roots mobilization can be significant, and the present revitalization of the South Bronx is a case in point.
The Bronx was burning in the 1980’s when a group of local clergy formed an umbrella organization called South Bronx Churches and invited the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) — from which Obama, at just about the same time, was getting his own training — to help them turn their congregations into agents of change.
Over the years, the IAF has expanded and refined the methods of community organizing that its founder, Saul Alinsky, developed starting in the 1940’s to confront discrimination in employment, housing, and public services in Chicago. Overall, it’s a kind of collective anger management: Take a disaffected community that’s seething with impotent and destructive rage and turn it into self-esteem and political power.
Developing community coherence is long, meticulous work. With South Bronx Churches, following the IAF model, it began with individual sessions called "one-on-ones." Organizers sat down with each head of the participating community groups, asking them to articulate their specific hopes for social change. These in turn repeated the exercise with one another and then spread it across their membership. Next came intensive meetings within their congregations and then with the entire organization.
Through this process, concerns common to the community came to light, and the list was long: housing, education, food quality, health care, drug-dealing, gun violence, police brutality, toxic waste dumps. Also through this process, natural (and often unexpected) leaders within the congregations were identified and trained in public speaking, running meetings, simulated encounters with public officials, and general bravery. It is amazing to see the transformations that occured with this training: Shy moms who’d been afraid to say a word at a PTA meeting became fearless, articulate advocates of their cause.
The movement was structured and mentored by the IAF organizers, but it authentically grew from the bottom up: People not only took possession of the issues, they took possession of themselves, following what the IAF calls its "iron-clad rule": "Never do anything for someone that they can do for themselves."
With the initial training accomplished, the group began to cut its teeth on small, achievable goals: petitioning for a traffic signal at a dangerous intersection, getting the police to break up a corner drug ring, forcing a landlord to repair an apartment building.
In the process, the people educated themselves about the structures of civic power to identify the levels of power that had to be confronted to most quickly and effectively bring about the desired results.
As the group gained knowledge and confidence, it moved to larger issues. The leaders, having studied a problem and formulated solutions, sought meetings with the responsible officials, who were then invited to speak at an assembly of the congregations.
IAF assemblies are rigorously disciplined. They begin on time and end on time, usually in an hour and a half. Each participating congregation is introduced, followed by several short inspirational speeches by members. A leader presents the issue to be addressed, and attending officials are given precisely five minutes to speak. (It is most gratifying to watch politicians in the midst of their bluster tapped on the shoulder by a neighborhood lady with a stopwatch.) Then the officials are asked pointed questions ("Will you back legislation to relocate this toxic-waste dump?") to which they must respond either "yes" or "no" — no qualifications allowed. After a round of thanks and a prayer, the assembly ends.
This is a compelling demonstration of people-power. Officials from the head of the housing authority to Mayor Giuliani himself, who once dismissed South Bronx Churches as another kooky fringe, eventually found it impossible to ignore. As reporter Sanford Horwitt wrote in the L.A. Times some years ago: "The fact that a politician can discern morality a lot faster in a roomful of registered voters has little to do with cynicism but says much about how the democratic process works — and has always worked — in our country."
The results were hardly instantaneous, but over the course of 20 years and through the mobilization of thousands, they came: Corrupt school boards were dissolved and new schools, some of them sponsored and mentored by South Bronx Churches, were built; acres of vacant lots were appropriated for affordable housing, much of which was also sponsored by South Bronx Churches; filthy public hospitals were modernized and re-staffed; waste dumps were relocated; the police force was retrained and redeployed to better serve the community.
The South Bronx is now beginning to flourish, thanks in no small part to the work of South Bronx Churches.
Obama’s experience in community organizing gave him the tools to mastermind his campaign. If only his experience will remind him that the politicians don’t own the issues, the people do.


August 14, 2008

Sheesh. I take two weeks off to go lap-topless in Seattle (paperless, TV- and radio-less too; take note, Mr. Gates), and what’s first up on the news when I return? Why, it’s Barack Obama, asking us fellow Americans not what your country can do for you. After eight-plus years of official avoidance of self-sacrifice for the national good, he must have felt it necessary to draw us back to it gently, with baby steps. So to begin, what you can do for your country is: Keep your car’s tires inflated and get a tune-up.
The opposition jump-started off that one. It took the Republican National Committee just a day or two to order up a bunch of tire-gauge sticks imprinted with "Barack Obama’s Energy Plan" and dish them out to reporters and supporters, many of whom promptly off-loaded them to e-Bay (going price: $7.49-$10).
Obama’s admonition, however, was not unfounded. Experts like the AAA and NASCAR have been saying for years that properly inflated tires and a well-tuned engine could improve your gas mileage by 3% and 4% each. If all the driving public began doing just those two things today, demand for petroleum could be reduced by as much as new offshore drilling might produce 20 years from now. John McCain himself eventually had to admit the same, causing Obama to muse snidely that he was now having debates with himself.
The flap, thus flipped, was a flop, and the pundits got great mileage out of it, making car-puns. That was actually the best part of the whole thing — or worst, depending on where you rank the pun as a form of humor.
I mean, they had a blowout. The cable guys especially, regardless of their balance or alignment, wouldn’t tire of it; they got all pumped up and kept the pressure on for at least two-sevenths of a news cycle. Government leaks, gas-bag politicians, and a flat economy all took a back seat, until John Edwards checked his side-view mirror and found Rielle Hunter was closer than she appeared. That jacked them up over something new — a story with legs.
Aw, go ahead: Think up some really smelly puns yourself; this paper welcomes letters to the editor.
Obama’s call to fight gas-price inflation with tire inflation does sound laughable at first hearing, but it’s far less so than McCain’s call for that "gas-tax holiday," which is just a silly way of asking what your country can do for you.
If you’ll allow me one last pun, I’d like to see Obama’s idea gain traction. As we’re all now coming to see, achieving energy sustainability and environmental improvement will be the result not only of enlightened public policy (presently running on empty) but of countless individual decisions by everyone who uses energy — that is, everyone. And since federal action on energy has sputtered and stalled for years, the decisions of individuals, businesses, and state and local governments become all the more important. The pinch of fuel prices on the pocketbook is raising consciousness faster than altruism ever could, and people are now scrambling for personal ways to conserve and preserve. Obama’s suggestion is hardly self-sacrifice — let’s hope he gets well beyond the baby steps pretty darn soon — but at least it’s asking what you can do for your country, as well as for yourself.
As far as driving is concerned, I find myself making new resolutions every time I hit fifty bucks on the pump. After getting over my laughing-jag at the Obama speech and the Republican backfire, I took out my old unimprinted tire gauge and portable pump, plumped up my tires, and added the task to my Day-Timer’s tickler.
Prior to that, I’d lowered my highway speed to 60 mph (55, the supposedly optimum speed federally imposed after the 1973 oil embargo and rescinded without forethought over a decade ago, somehow seems just a bit too slow). Coupled with a tune-up, this has brought the gas mileage on my classic 1984 Honda Accord up to a Prius-challenging 40 mpg. It also has a remarkable calming effect on my driving, except when tailgated by a towering truck or a senseless speeder.
I’ve given up drive-thru windows too, after suffering hallucinations of gas-pump meters racing blindingly like the National Debt Clock while I sat there idling. Good local governments would close all drive-thru’s permanently.
And speaking of idling, I’ve started treating stop-lights at empty intersections like stop-signs; if I see no pedestrians, cars, or police, I’ll proceed through them. Good local governments could substantially cut fuel consumption in their districts by turning traffic lights at low-volume crossings to flashing red. I’m sure I’ll get a moving violation sooner or later from some cop idling her patrol car in the bushes. No matter; I’ll go to court and plead innocent by reason of sanity.
Barack, I’m with you all the way on this one. I’d rather be a starter than an alternator.