Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two executions

Let's start with the hard case. Yesterday, Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist who chained a black man, James Byrd, Jr., to his pickup truck and dragged him along a bumpy asphalt road to his death, was executed in Texas. There were no protests and not much advance publicity.

Of course there was another execution yesterday. The State of Georgia took the life of Troy Davis despite significant doubts about his guilt and highly publicized objections from around the world. Davis was further punished by being kept in suspense for four hours while the Supreme Court heard, then denied, his final appeal. This had happened before. Davis was nearly executed in 2007 and again in 2008, only to be granted last-minute stays.

I have no idea whether Troy Davis was guilty, but if the seven out of nine original witnesses who recanted their testimony are correct, then somebody else actually committed the murder he was convicted for. I sincerely hope that gives some of the people who pushed inexorably for his execution a few moments' uneasiness. To many who followed this case, the apparent inability of death penalty supporters to feel such emotions—epitomized by Rick Perry's glibness in a recent debate—is particularly baffling.

I described the Brewer execution as the "hard case," though, because it is so difficult to feel doubt or uneasiness about it. This was clearly a very bad man, who did something so indescribably awful that it revolted the nation. There was no doubt about his guilt. Furthermore, if this matters, this was a white man being executed for killing a black man. Some would even consider that progress.

Nevertheless, the simultaneity of these two executions gives us a chance to put the debate about the death penalty in perspective. What is wrong with the death penalty isn't the possibility that an innocent person could be executed—indeed, the overwhelming likelihood that many already have been. What is wrong with it is that taking human life does not convey the message that it is wrong to take human life. Instead, it cheapens human life, and thus makes us a coarser, more heartless and more violent society. The state in which I live—the state that executed Lawrence Russell Brewer yesterday—operates one of the most relentless, implacable death machines anywhere in the world. Here in Texas, the death penalty isn't solving the problem of violence and disregard for human life. It's part of the problem.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kathy, I'm Lost

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping. "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."

If you're wondering, that's a line from Simon and Garfunkel's song "America." Simon and Garfunkel used to be big. Paul Simon still is. Art Garfunkel travels the country and gives concerts as a "legend." I don't think that's quite the same thing.

The line came to my mind last night after an exchange I had with a colleague about references to pop culture in textbooks. I'm writing a textbook, and I've occasionally tried to spice things up. Not a good idea, he said; such references are dated the moment the book hits the stands, and are unfathomable a few years later. So I found myself wondering if anybody else is still in love with Kathy.

I don't even know who she was, but Paul Simon fell for her in England in 1964 and wrote that song about how he had "come to doubt all that I once held as true. I stand alone without beliefs. The only truth I know is you." Kathy was probably a distant memory by the time he invoked her again in "America" a few years later, but I discovered both songs when I was in high school, and they spoke to me as I'm sure they did to many adolescents at the time. The angst was at once eloquent, a bit facile, and indescribably right. It's not great poetry, great music, or great anything, but it's a permanent part of me, and that no doubt marks me as being precisely the age that I am. Dated and now unfathomable, my memories have been replaced by many more recent generations' defining lyrics.

In my case, the Simon and Garfunkel moment was prolonged because I was romantically stymied. Not unusual for an adolescent, I know, but for me it was particularly severe because the years of bullying I had endured through most of my childhood left me afraid of my own shadow. It's one of the lesser-known—but well documented—effects of bullying that victims often find it nearly impossible to develop romantic relationships as adults. Having been there, I understand why. If you've been treated as a worthless piece of trash long enough, it may be literally impossible to believe that anybody else could care about you. What for other adolescents and young adults is a peril-filled but often comical rite of passage was for me simply out of the picture. It didn't happen. (Until it finally did, but that's another story entirely...)

Of course I fantasized about the romantic partners I feared I would never have, and they were always named Kathy. Like I said, being in love with Kathy was a permanent part of me.

I recall all of this now because what I was in love with represented something else that moved in and took up the large empty space that was available in my imagination. As a child of the 60's who came of age in the 70's, cursed by an unrequited need to love, I came to believe deep down that I was a part of something transformative. The Civil Rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, the flower-draped, hippy-crazed ambience: I was too young to find it threatening. Instead, it charged me with hope for what this country was becoming. Never having lived in a different America, I didn't know any better than to assume that those who were changing our country before my eyes would continue to do so. It was the only reality I knew.

Paul Simon, though older than I by over a decade, expressed the same yearning in "America." The lyrics, which famously don't rhyme, begin by saying "Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together." (Kathy and I? America and I? It wasn't quite clear.) "I've got some real estate here in my bag." (The entire country, to be sure.) "So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies." (Do they still make those things?) "And we walked off to look for America." The song seems to trace a journey that progresses from the Midwest toward New York City. At the end, Simon immediately drowned the introspection of the first line I quoted by asserting that he was "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They've all come to look for America." America, it seemed, was something worth searching for, worth creating.

I am writing this to try to explain, once again, why I find the current situation of our country so brutally disappointing. The unraveling of Simon's and my dream began when Ronald Reagan was elected president—something I never, ever saw coming. (To those of you who are too young to remember, until sometime in 1980 Reagan looked exactly the way Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann do now: extreme, dumb, and absolutely unelectable.) The man who had once used National Guard helicopters against student protesters at Berkeley began the process of dismantling everything that was good about the country I had always known. I can only compare the slow, brutal descent into an ugly, discordant reality that has unfolded ever since to an unrequited love that just goes on and on. Like so many others I knew, I so wanted to give this country what my generation grew up believing, and I've been spurned - again, and again, and again, with unbelievable vehemence. Kathy, I'm lost.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bad cheers

It came about two thirds of the way through last night's Republican presidential debate. I didn't watch, since I'm laid up with an abdominal hernia and my stomach doesn't need any further challenges. Facebook, though, proved its worth as a medium for genuine information; my news feed lit up with the indignation of at least one friend who found the audience reaction to one of Wolf Blitzer's questions profoundly disturbing.

Here's what happened. Blitzer was grilling Ron Paul about national health insurance. He posed what was no doubt intended to represent an extreme case. You can watch the video at, but I've transcribed it below.

"A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides 'You know what? I'm not gonna spend 200 or 300 dollars a month for health insurance, 'cause I'm healthy, I don't need it,' but, you know, something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it. Who's gonna pay for, if he goes into a coma. Who pays for that?"

Paul responded that "In a society where you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him."

"But what do you want?," Blitzer shot back.

"But what he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself," said Paul. "My advice to him would [be] have a major medical policy but not be forced..."

"But he doesn't have that," Blitzer reminded him. "He doesn't have it, and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?"

"That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody..." is what Paul was saying when the audience broke into a round of furious applause.

"But Congressman," Blitzer interrupted, "are you saying that society should just let him die?"

Paul, to his credit, answered "No," but he was nearly drowned out by a few loud voices from the audience calling out "Yeah!," with supportive cheers from many others. As I listened to the video at about 10:00 last night, I was reminded, and promptly stated on my own Facebook page, that the expression "chills ran up my spine" is not a figure of speech. I was nauseated, sickened, horrified, and in near despair. This was the audience at a debate held by one of our two major political parties (albeit with "Tea Party" backing), and a significant contingent was cheering the idea of letting somebody die. Even though I was in pain and really needed to go to bed, I put out a feeler to see if others were as appalled as I was.

The thread that followed has run, so far, to 51 comments. Everybody who chimed in was also horrified—even a few whom I know to be Republicans. There was some doubt expressed about whether this was really the view of the Republican party, or of even more than a lunatic fringe within it. (It did sound to me like a significant portion of the audience was cheering.) One poster pointed out that Blitzer's question was really quite ingeniously phrased (which it certainly was). Another poster told the first one that it was her responsibility, as a Republican, to make sure that her party doesn't fall into the hands of extremists: a position with which I strongly agree.

I've slept on it now, and I just want to add the following. I was once thirty years old and had a good job. Fortunately, it came with health insurance, and I didn't have to contribute anything on my own; it was a pure fringe benefit. I say fortunately because I was paying back significant loans from my education, and on my "lecturer" salary I could not have spared 200 or 300 dollars a month for health insurance. I was healthy, and given the choice, I would have had to turn the insurance down.

But there is more. Christianity—the religion to which the majority of "Tea Party" members claim to belong—is founded on grace. Grace is embodied in the idea that God acted for us decisively despite the fact that we had done nothing to deserve such action. Consequently, the Christian Gospel requires us to do the same. The Gospel stands or falls on whether we accept the reality of radical, unconditional grace and internalize it. You cannot be a Christian and cheer the idea of somebody being left to die, for any reason whatsoever. Period. End of discussion.

I've spoken here before about the way that the Christian Gospel has been clashing publicly with a very different Gospel: that of Ayn Rand, who would indeed have applauded the idea of letting someone die as preferable to letting society lift a finger to help. I have said before that these two Gospels are incompatible, and the cheering at last night's debate perfectly illustrates that point. The people who cheered are not Christians. They may go to church, tithe and take communion, but they are still not Christians. You can only be a Christian by the grace of God, totally beyond and above your own deserving. As a well-known Christian parable illustrates, that man in a coma without health insurance is Christ. A country that would choose not to help him is rejecting Christ. And that's really all that needs to be said.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Which side are you on?

Last Monday we celebrated Labor Day. Judging from the number of American flags flying in front of houses in my neighborhood, many people consider this a patriotic occasion. They're right, but I also have to wonder if they really know what Labor Day is all about.

That day I shared a link on my Facebook page that shows the face of American Labor. Florence Reece, whose family had been harassed by management agents during the 1931 coal miner's strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, wrote the song "Whose Side Are You On?" Over 40 years later, the still feisty Reece sang the song for miners and their families as they struck against Duke Power for safer, decent working conditions. The sight of young people, who knew the song by heart, singing along with her is an image of what Labor Day really means. It is about the centuries-long struggle of American workers to achieve human decency at work and at home in the face of employers driven by profits and determined to earn them at the lowest possible cost.

This struggle, which has led to things like pensions, paid holidays, sick leaves, workplace safety laws, child labor laws, and 40-hour work weeks—things we all take for granted today—is one of the great stories in American history. For this reason, people like Florence Reece, who wrote this song, and Pete Seeger, who popularized it, should be remembered as American heroes. They contributed as much to the fabric of modern America as many presidents and generals, if not more. For most of us, what we think of as the American Way of Life is founded on their achievements.

Why did the miners of Harlan County have to struggle as they did? It wasn't just because the mining companies were greedy; it was also because the government used its power to suppress their voices and support the interests of the wealthy mine owners. This is a role that many people who call themselves conservatives are quite happy to see the government play. They are deluding themselves, though, if they think that supporting the rights of powerful corporations over the rights of the people who work for them is a formula for "small government." Their support simply puts the power of government to work increasing the concentration of wealth and promoting greater inequality. This is a process that has been going on in the US since Ronald Reagan fired the members of the air traffic controller's union thirty years ago this summer, and it has now gained frightening momentum.

I don't mean the title of this post as a call to arms. I have no great desire to divide the public into "us and them," "sheep and goats," or whatever other combative image the title of Reece's song might suggest. The lack of civility in the public sphere has become so great that it is now probably the biggest single obstacle to progress. I'm all for promoting mutual understanding, not driving in more wedges.

For that very reason, though, I want to take the occasion of Labor Day week to clarify where the dividing line in our society really lies. It is not between proponents of small government and proponents of big government. We have big government, and we're going to keep having it, because, as I've said before on this blog, we're a big society that cannot simply run on its own.

The real issue is whether big government is going to be used in the interest of the wealthy and powerful and to the neglect of the poor and needy, or whether it is going to use at least some of its power to help the poor and needy protect their rights and keep the influence of wealth and money in check. It now costs so much to be elected to any public office that both parties are in the hands of what FDR called "organized money." That's why organized labor, and everything it represents, is just as important today as it ever was. If there isn't somebody around to remind the government to take care of those who work for a living, we just might find ourselves right back where we were in 1931. Sooner than you think.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


What, then, was to be learned when the towers came down? That we were no longer an island in the sea, safe in our own defenses, isolated, "good." That in some way, intangible evil had indeed touched us—lifted us out of our innocence and left us lessened, our youth belatedly spent. We reeled in the dark as this apparition blasted our complacency. We sought to comfort each other, and longed to know the worst.

The world, it was noted then, changed overnight. Even before the questions of who and what began, the questions of how grasped our souls and began to change us, for we could not remain unchanged. How, in the past tense, meant what strange concatenation of evil had led up to this; how could we be shaken in so unexpected a way? How, in the future tense, meant how could we respond? For respond we would, and in all the bonding and reassuring and heroism and tears of that time, we remained torn by the knowledge that we would act, and that our actions would define us.

The first days were the hardest days, as we sat, unaccustomed, in the world's nurturing embrace, striving to become great of soul. The outpouring of love was real, and we appeared to chafe, no longer able to hold ourselves up by our own exertion. The power that is made perfect in weakness eluded us, and the power defined by bombs and dollars burst gasping from the embryonic mass. As we struck, the world recoiled, gradually withdrawing its love, then its support, then what little remained of its sympathy. Our actions, which did define us, were those that we could perform by rote, by comfortable habit, by flexing our atrophied but desperate muscles and flailing blindly.

I wish I could tell a different outcome to this story. Ten years down the road, I am haunted by unrealized possibilities. The present has become our prison, as is all too evident from the way our politics have ceased to function. The glue that held us together in the past is stretched beyond the bursting point, and the flailing continues, as our worn-out strength is unable even to hold up our own weight, while the once sympathetic world licks its wounds and regroups.

There will be a lot of empty words this week, and my guess is that the world will not much care. What it needed from us, expressed in that inchoate embrace of ten years past, is what we never tried to give in return. The new, creative thinking that once compassed our greatness has yet to appear, as we turn on ourselves and fail to lead the way out of crises as great as any faced in the last century, when our self-assurance matched our untested power.

I try not to despair. The courage and will to solve the environmental and economic crises that imperil the world are still here. I can read them in countless blog posts and comments, and hear them from friends and relatives throughout the country—even (or especially) here in central Texas. My horror this week is that the swagger and desperate grasping for self-assurance that are likely to compete for our attention on the 10th anniversary of that awful day will only serve to strengthen the process that has made us less bold, less visionary, less ourselves than we have ever been before.

May the God who is the source of all wisdom shine some light through this darkness and enable us to see. May the prayers of the intercessors, far from the seats of political power, be heard and turned to hard wisdom. May we all be moved to rediscover our core values, and give to the world what it still so desperately needs us to give.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Climate Confusion

"Non, je ne verrai pas la déplorable fête

Où s’enivre, en espoir d’un brilliant avenir,

Ce people condamné, que rien, hélas! n’arrête

Sur la pente du gouffre."

"No, I will not look upon this dreadful celebration

Where, drunk with hope of a brilliant future,

Nothing, alas, will stop this doomed people

From their plunge into destruction."

Cassandra, in Berlioz's Les Troyens

I have been deeply moved these past few weeks to see hundreds of people willing to face arrest at the White House in a massive act of civil disobedience. If you don't know—and you very well may not—they have been protesting the proposed construction of a massive pipeline, known appropriately as Keystone XL, that would link the Canadian tar sands directly with refineries in Texas.

Among those arrested are Bill McKibben, who has been speaking out with increasing urgency on the threat of climate change, and NASA's leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen. In Hansen's words, approval of the pipeline will mean that it is "essentially game over" for the climate. Extracting oil from the tar sands produces three times as much greenhouse gas as simply burning it. The pipeline will run through America's heartland, and has the potential to produce an ecological disaster all by itself, including possible contamination of the Ogalalla Aquifer. In short, it is a truly horrible idea, and it appears beyond belief that a Democratic president who claims to be an environmentalist is poised to approve it.

Or so those who oppose the pipeline have been claiming. Every time the issue comes up, strong countering voices chime in to point out that Canada will develop the tar sands regardless of whether Keystone XL is built. In fact, it is already doing so, devastating native American habitat and primal forests in the process. If we don't build the pipeline, the argument goes, the Canadians will just build one to their own West Coast and export the oil to Asia. In the process, President Obama will have sacrificed thousands of potential American jobs and sabotaged our efforts to achieve energy independence.

In other words, this fuse is going to be lit, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The game is already over. The tar sands are going to be developed, for the simple reason that the worldwide demand for oil is rising at the same time the supply is falling, or at least not growing fast enough to keep up.

This is not encouraging news, but it gives reason to wonder if Hansen's choice of words might have been unfortunate. If this is indeed "game over for the climate," and if it is bound to happen no matter what America does, then it will be difficult to mobilize people for any future efforts to stop climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. As readers of this blog know, this is something that I care passionately about, and I'm not willing to accept defeat. I fully expect future generations to hold all of us now alive responsible for the devastation they are likely to face. In fact, I expect my children and grandchildren (if I have them) to be mad as heck about our failure to solve this crisis, or even to face it honestly. The urgency I feel on their behalf is hard to overstate.

At the same time, I honestly wonder whether there is anything we can do. People simply aren't turning away from fossil fuel and embracing alternative energy at the rate that will be necessary to avert disaster. There may simply not be enough alternative energy for them to embrace. How about living without air conditioning when the temperatures here in Texas have been in the triple digits every day for the last three months? How about giving up fresh fruits and vegetables for most of the year? Abandoning air travel? These are decisions that people will have to be consciously willing to make, and people just don't make decisions like that. It's against human nature.

So we're doomed. Doomed, at the very least, to an ongoing series of futile protests like the ones now going on in Washington. Even if we win this battle, we'll probably lose the war. Does that mean we should give up, and guarantee that our ultimate defeat will be even worse than it might have been? Game over? Cassandra, I feel your pain.