Denver and Damascus – A Brief Thought on Memorial Day


Today, in Egypt, a friend and political ally of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak vies for the presidency against a representative of an organization that has long advocated and exercised violence as a means of maintaining a firm religious grip on its constituents.

Today, Syria reels in the wake of a crackdown in the close-knit community of Houla – carried out by armed civilian militias with major government support – which left ninety dead after the militants traveled house to house eliminating entire families.

Even in Russia, through which the waters of democracy have flowed for over two decades, three opposition leaders were arrested at the dawn of Putin’s third term.

But in the United States – even forty years ago – when a president was involved in carrying out and concealing legal and political corruption, that leader voluntarily left office, without the pointing of a pistol or the collapse of a government, and his nation moved forward.

Sometimes soldiers are pawns. Sometimes politicians are thugs. But there exists, in this fervent national discourse of ours, more than defense budgets and political efficacy. Democratic principle is, by no means, a given. When the map goes red, and when it goes blue, or when it lands anywhere in between, servicemen and servicewomen will maintain that principle. They are what sets the rights of a citizen of Denver apart from those of a citizen of Damascus.

In every language, in every faith, we pray for the day we can stop producing camouflage uniforms and M-16s. Today, we thank the people who wear those uniforms and carry those guns for waiting with us, cautiously, warily, patiently for that day.

Fluorescent Traffic Signals – Why the GOP Needs to Read More Shakespeare


We seem to be a country continually prone to missing the signs.

We’ve heard the story of the drowning man who refused the aid of three rescue boats, confident that God would save him; the novice batter who had just been pitched two change-ups, and didn’t realize that the fastball must be next; the chain smoker who was warned by doctor after doctor that tobacco is the leading cause of lung cancer.

We read in the literary canon of tragic figures like Macbeth, whose fall comes with a series of hints and premonitions. We remember domestic events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – assassinations, breaches of national security – which many still believe could have been prevented, had officials seen the signs – or, more significantly, been looking for them.

We do, perhaps – in both our most ostensible and most intimate pursuits – suffer from an epidemic of ignorance toward much that points us in the right direction; we have a frequent proclivity to forgo society’s beaming and fluorescent traffic signals.

The epidemic could not come at a less opportune time for its latest victim. It evokes the words of John McKnight, in an introduction to his The Careless Society: “It is the ability of citizens to care that creates strong communities and able democracies.” The latest victim seems blatantly not to care about, nor to take heed of warnings issued by the events of the recent past. That victim is the Republican Party.

On George W. Bush’s final day in office, his approval rating had tanked to 22%, the lowest final rating in Gallup’s more than seventy-year history. In the months – even years – leading up to the presidential election of 2008, Bush was easily the least-popular president since our nation’s founding.

The American legacy that he left, it was widely believed on both sides of the political spectrum, was one that would necessitate desperate and thorough repair. John McCain – once a maverick – had recently become a Bush-policy convert and had cultivated a record of supporting some of the president’s most controversial decisions. For him, the race should have been over as soon as it began. For the democrats – who could easily have been the party of consistency and virtue – a win should have been comfortable and clean.

As we remember, the race for the Democratic nomination was the furthest thing from clean; more accurately, it was a long, excessive, and grimy process of mud-slinging and insult-dodging. Only in June, just a few short months before the nominating convention, did Hillary Clinton swallow her pride and, with a memorable and tepid, “this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned,” step aside for Barack Obama.

But in between the beginning of primary season and the eloquent Clinton exit crept many, many opportunities for what should have been the most electable Democratic ticket in American history to self-destruct. The party teetered and tottered – allowing each candidate to expose weaknesses and further wither any chances of a left-wing White House. Some argue that the scrutiny of the primary campaign simply brought on the vetting process a few months early. However, when Clinton told reporters that she couldn’t drop out because “Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” and when Obama was steadily attacked for his relationship with his pastor, the candidates were only adding more ammunition to the ever-quickening automatic weapon of the GOP.

We have begun to hear echoes of 2008’s teeter and totter in this year’s Republican primary. While President Obama’s approval ratings don’t nearly equate to those of his predecessor, he is not considered to be widely popular, and has certainly ticked off many who would have sworn their allegiance to the Candidate Obama three years ago. By many accounts (though most are anecdotal and few are based in statistical evidence) Obama could be just as beatable as a Bush-type figure. Without doubt, a soon-rising and largely-backed Republican nominee could quell much of the poll inflation that Obama has received from his incumbency.

By letting the Wealthy Greaser duke it out with the Pillsbury Doughboy of American Values, the GOP has proven its marked lack of regard for American electoral trends. The longer Mitt Romney shares an antagonistic stage with Newt Gingrich, the more difficult it will become for the ultimate nominee to defeat the president. Of course, this isn’t the advice I would give the candidates themselves.

What would I tell them? Keep fighting; it’s good for you.

Scattered Thoughts on a Scattered Day – September 11, In Memoriam


“Tom!”

My dad, a journalist, had left for his daily jog in the wee hours of the morning. As he finished running and stood, stretching, on the sidewalk outside our one-story house, Stu, a neighbor, shouted out to him.

“You missed a big news story!”

My dad, tired from his run and hardly in the mood to talk, wiped the sweat from his brow and he gave Stu a courteous wave. He meandered inside to turn on the television.

When JFK was killed, my grandfather was in the basement of the business his family owned. When FDR died, my grandmother was at a ballet, and a man at the theater had stopped the show to make the announcement to the crowd. When Saddam Hussein began launching scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War, my mom was in a bomb-shelter in Jerusalem. I woke up on 9/11 when I heard the television turn on in the den, and I watched.

Few remember where they were the night before. Few forget where they were that morning.

~

I wrote a lot in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. I wrote more than four pages over the past three days, just sort of verbally meandering, jotting down whatever I could think of. I wrote about fear, about a different kind of darkness, and about waning faith. I thought about posting some of the transcripts of “last calls” made from the planes.

When I woke up this morning, though, I changed my mind.

We can be bogged down by fear. We can lose our faith. We can be enveloped by darkness – and that’s fine.

But we can also extol what the towers stood for, even in their vanished shadow; we can believe in the tenacity of the American spirit, even in its instability; we can celebrate life, especially in the wake of death.

I decided to research a few of their lives. The following are the profiles of four 9/11 victims.

~

Antonio Javier Alvarez immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the late 90s. He met his wife, Filiberta, while working at a garment factory in Queens. They worked together to collect pieces of cloth and repackage them, and were eventually married and had a son.

Antonio believed in working hard for the American dream. His wife described him as “very serious, but always in a happy mood.” When he lost his job at the factory, a friend helped him find work as a grill chef at the Windows on the World restaurant.

On September 11, he went to work at 6:30 am – earlier than usual – to cater a special event. He loved playing soccer, pickup basketball, and his young son. Antonio was 23.

Judy Larocque founded a market research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts called Market Perspectives. She was said to have had two children, in addition to her two daughters: her company and her golden retriever, Naboo.

In the months that preceded the attacks, Judy had been revisiting her youthful side; she began doing yoga – something she had loved in her adolescence – and walked a sixty-mile fundraiser for breast cancer.

On September 11, 2001, Judy’s daughter Carie drove to the Farmingham office to tell her the employees that her mothers’ plane, American Flight 11, had crashed into the World Trade Center. Judy was 50.

Tommy Gardner grew up in New York City. He worked in the FDNY’s Engine Co. 59 for twelve years. Five years before the attacks on Manhattan, he joined a specialized Haz-mat squad in the FDNY, specializing in toxic operation under extreme conditions.

He loved hockey, and – according to his friends – was hilarious. Before joining the fire department, he briefly worked at NBC where he wrote jokes for Phyllis Diler, Henny Youngman, and Joan Rivers, among others.

On September 11th, his unit (whose station had a clear view of the World Trade Center) was dispatched to deal with the fuel leakage into the South Tower. All eighteen people in his unit died. Tommy was 39.

Helen Crossin-Kittle knew her future husband as a kid. While she had always liked him, he never picked up on those feelings until she asked him out on a date.

Her husband notes that he was “just dumb” and would still be single if she hadn’t made the first move. They were married on April, 7, 2001, and went on their honeymoon in St. Lucia shorty afterward.

Helen specialized in computers and was working on the 103rd floor of the North Tower on September 11, 2001. She was five months pregnant, and had gone in for amniocentesis nine days earlier and expected the test results the next Monday. Helen was 34.

~

There were –

343 firefighters and paramedics killed,

23 NYPD officers killed,

37 Port Authority officers killed,

1,402 employees who were killed in the North Tower,

614 employees who were killed in the South Tower,

289 bodies found intact,

and 1,717 families who received no remains.

~

Two days after 9/11, my dad brought me to a flag and banner shop on a main street in West Los Angeles. The store was on our route to my elementary school, so until then, we had driven past the store at least twice every day. Neither of us had never been inside, nor had we even seen anyone going into the store or, leaving it.

He parked his minivan and we started walking toward the store. But it wasn’t like the other days that we had driven past. Flowing out of the store and snaking around the block were a crowd of probably thirty or forty people; they all wanted a flag.

It is the most advantageous of ironies. The brightest light, the most palpable warmth, comes out of cavernous darkness.

When our fixations abate, when the world goes dark, we are forced to move our eyes – to look up, at each other. When the world goes dark, the blur of perpetual commotion around us and inside us suddenly stops. Out of silence, out of standing still, comes a lens of ephemeral clarity.

Let our response after 9/11 influence us now. When night falls before the sun sets – when tragedy strikes, or when we’re blanketed by premature darkness – human nature compels us to realize our commonalities.

Let us relinquish competition and hostility; let us embrace each other.

Obama at AIPAC – The Speech that Worked (in Theory)


On Sunday morning, I arrived in Washington, DC with a medium-sized group of high school students for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the United States’ pro-Israel lobby.

My views don’t always correlate to those of AIPAC. I often find myself questioning the lobby’s stringent and unbreakable conservative nature. But AIPAC itself is officially nonpartisan and its primary goal is to defend and protect the State of Israel and its policies – during every and any administration.

As a result, severe apprehension gripped the conference’s attendees when it was announced that President Obama would be a keynote speaker. In the wake of recent events, there had been much build-up to the speech – irritation from the American Jewish community as a result of the President speech Thursday and his word choice regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (“pre-1967 borders”), excitement from my friends and classmates who eagerly awaited the unique opportunity to hear their President speak, and my unwavering anxiety and concern at the prospect of a room full of ten-thousand Jews hissing or booing at the Leader of the Free World.

Before Obama emerged on the garish AIPAC stage, a friend and I decided to make a bet on the language the President would use. “He’ll say ‘1967’,” my friend told me. “He’ll stick to the same language.” I was less sure. I told him that I thought Obama was at AIPAC to appease the Jewish community, to make up for Thursday’s speech, or to backpedal on the words he had chosen. The anxiety grew thicker – I could almost feel it in the air.

President Obama delivered an eloquent and meticulous address. As he approached the podium, he was met with gracious respect and cautious appreciation. He began by acknowledging universal truths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the kind of statements thats the American Jewish community eats up like a fresh batch of cookies.

“A strong and secure Israel is in the national security interest of United States,” he said – and there was applause. He went on. “America’s commitment to Israel’s security also flows from a deeper place – and that’s the values we share.” More applause. Then, he asserted that he has “made the security of Israel a priority.” And, of course, more applause.

But once he’d warmed up the crowd, he cut to the chase. With absolute intrepidity and unmitigated integrity, Obama reaffirmed what he had defined as United States policy on Thursday: the 1967 borders of Israel should serve as a guideline for peace negotiations.

And the applause waned. But this time – during this speech – it was clear that the President had learned from his mistakes. He told the AIPAC audience that those who had reacted radically to his previous statement hadn’t been fully listening. “There was nothing particularly original in my proposal,” he said. “This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties.”He asked the audience to listen to his proposal in context. He clarified that he didn’t only wish for Israel to revert back to previous borders, but that he believed that “mutually agreed upon swaps” were necessary.

The speech was a statement about the President’s resolve: it didn’t matter to whom he was speaking. He was there to deliver a message. It was clear that he knew that those who disagree or doubt him will never agree and will always doubt him. But “if there’s a controversy,” he affirmed, referring to his ‘1967’ statement “then, it’s not based in substance.” He did not appease the American Jewish community. He did not backpedal upon established US policy. With candor, with truth, and with poise, he stood before an unjustifiably irate crowd and proved exactly why their anger was groundless.

Camaraderie Out of Extremity – Gratitude in the Wake of the bin Laden Assassination


Last night, I was flying with my family back from Portland to Los Angeles. As we strapped ourselves into our seats and powered down our cell phones, a muffled voice came over the plane’s speaker system.

“This is your captain speaking,” said the voice. “Just wanted to let you all know that President Obama is speaking right now at the White House and they killed Osama bin Laden.” Cheers and applause erupted from the elated passengers – among them, a businessman dressed to the nines, a mom traveling with her young son and daughter, and an elderly bearded man dressed in traditional Sikh garb.

When I got home, I had several text messages and voice mail messages waiting on my phone. “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” said one. “Got ‘em!” said another. The social networks (Twitter and Facebook) flared up with similarly nationalistic sentiments: photos of American flags, videos of military marches, assertions of American exceptionalism. Then, at school today, students greeted the news with marked astonishment and awe and – though some were hesitant – many expressed euphoria at the assassination. The last time Americans acted in such patriotic accord was, in fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

On September 12, 2001, in the wake of national tragedy, I went with my father to buy an American flag at a local banner store. When we got to the store, we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a line that stretched around the block. Everyone wanted to buy a flag. Everyone wanted to prove that he or she was a piece of the American puzzle.

And today, as the dust finally settles, camaraderie has returned. Even in the heat of the most vitriolic and polarizing climate in modern political history, Americans seem to be united again around one cause – one ideal. It is evident to me that in times of extremity – and, all too often, only in such times – people collaborate. When two students feel helpless before their history test, they may come together to study. When two companies are faltering on the brink of collapse, they may merge. So too, when Americans feel overcome by mourning, or overjoyed with pride, something magnificent happens.

Tomorrow, of course, we’ll all return to our bickering; Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans, we will be we, and they will be they. But today, as we witness the power of mutual loyalty, I am grateful to live in a country whose citizens sometimes – everyone once in a while – find allies in one another.

This is Truth Be Told’s 100th post.

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


Substance

He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.

Appearance

I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.

Implications

Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

Lessons from a Little Old Lady – How Kinship Can Eclipse Polarization


Sunday night at dinner, as I was poking and prodding at the final remnants of my butternut squash ravioli, my grandfather turned to me and — in that matter-of-fact tone that only a family patriarch can pull off — said, “Ami, here’s a story for you.”

He and my grandmother had flown from Los Angeles to Portland on Friday morning. When they took their seats on the plane, my grandfather became engaged in a conversation with — as he put it — “a little old white lady.” As their conversation progressed, the woman shared with him that she was on her way home from Tucson where she had traveled to listen to President Obama’s speech at AU.

My grandfather was taken aback. He wondered why she hadn’t just watched it on television like the rest of the world, why she’d cared so much about something so distant, why someone so frail would expend so much energy to fly to an unfamiliar place. The woman smiled at my grandfather. “Because,” she said — as though the answer were obvious — “he’s our President.”

Two years ago, Barack Obama was elected on camaraderie’s coattails. The “hope and change” mantra of his campaign was a point of cynical contention from the right, but the desire that it represented was very real and deeply rooted in the contemporary American psyche. The country had a profound thirst for something new and fresh.

But even in the wake of such an overwhelming mandate of optimism, polarization has triumphed over brotherhood, gridlock has transcended compromise — and history has repeated itself. We’re stuck again in that vicious cycle: as political vitriol morphs into physical brutality, the country takes a brief step back to self-assess. The shooting in Tucson has momentarily united us — but it’s only a matter of time until that harmony will wear off and we’ll be back to our usual, comfortable division.

How do we know that? Because nine years ago, when the towers fell, stars and stripes blanketed our nation and the American populace took on a patriotic, altruistic flair. But when the dust settled, what emerged was that pervasive with-us-or-against-us mindset (which consequently paved the way for a streak of impulsive choices and continual polarization). It wasn’t long before “kinship” and “unity” had been erased entirely from the American lexicon.

And forty-three years ago, a significant portion of our nation rallied around a preacher whose stated goal was to end the madness, end the division, end the segregation. But the recurring segmentalist nature of our country made sure that he didn’t make it to the promised land. Even then, malevolence overturned any sort of mutual allegiance we had to one another.

We need more little old ladies.

If we all did away with blind cynicism and acrimony and instead maintained a state of mind that promoted communal dependence and patriotic loyalty to one another, Washington’s gridlock would disappear in a heartbeat — and so would the nation’s. Hostility casts a shadow on our world. But in darkness, all it takes is one flicker of light to see our path.

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., I aspire to live in a country where civility outshines anger, where camaraderie outshines discrimination, and where little old ladies are the lights that guide us on our way to getting there.