Saturday, May 15, 2010

To Ian, with Pride

I'm conflicted today. Enough that the first thing into my stomach this morning was Tums. I'm baking a blueberry pie today for a party to celebrate the graduation from college and Air Force commissioning of my nephew, Ian. From the day he was born he was special to me-all my nieces and nephews are. But he is the only one whose mother was at my house when she went into labor, so we were there with her from the first contraction, til her husband came out beaming after her emergency C-section and said, "It's a boy," and the whole waiting room, which was full of relatives, burst into cheers, tears and applause.  My sister had placenta previa, meaning that the placenta was blocking the baby's way, which can lead to great danger for the baby, hence the emergency C-section, so it was a dramatic, emotional night for us.

 Ian has been the kind of child that anyone would be proud to have as a family member. He is smart, witty, loving, hard-working and goal oriented. He graduated from the University of North Texas summa cum laude. In his entire college career he made only one "B" in a class. Last night we watched his parents pin on his lieutenant's bars, and his stepfather offer his first salute. I don't care how hippie or peacenik one might be, it was an emotional moment, filled with pride. Ian's major was international studies,  he is fluent in Russian, and this year began studying Arabic. He is leaving for training in military intelligence in October, after which he will begin active duty.

 There is a long tradition in my family of military service. Two of my sisters, one of my nieces, Ian's father, stepfather and stepbrother all served. All my uncles on my mother's side have served, my dad and his dad did also. One uncle is a retired colonel and West Point grad.

And we are still at war. When his mother told me he was going ROTC, the only thing I said was that I hoped we would be at peace by the time he graduates. Four years ago that didn't seem an unreasonable wish. We were, after all, going into our current theaters of occupation with "Shock and Awe," to be greeted as liberators, and we would make quick work of these two fronts. So now I'm not sure it is worth bothering to wish for peace. I thought we already fought the "War to End All Wars," but, if my count is anywhere near correct, we have seen at least ten conflicts since then.

 I came out of the Viet Nam era, and believed that war was a mistake. I never thought it was ok to blame the soldiers for the things they did-soldiers serve at the pleasure of the Commander in Chief, and they do their jobs. It is part of the oath they take when they are sworn in that they will obey the orders of the Commander in Chief without question. I recently watched a PBS special on the My Lai massacre, and all those raw feelings of seeing civilians-women, babies, elderly villagers, slaughtered when they were unarmed and no threat to the soldiers came rushing back. I also just saw a commercial for the HBO mini-series, "The Pacific," showing a young marine, just back from the Pacific, looking for a job. The young woman helping him says, "Didn't the Marines teach you anything that can help you in your civilian life?" He responds, teeth gritted into a sneering grin, "They taught me how to kill Japs. And I'm damned good at it." All these things coming at me just as my nephew is beginning his military career has discomfited me.

We do teach our soldiers how to kill, and be good at it. We teach them how to dehumanize 'the enemy' so they don't stop to think about that guy at the end of their gun being a son, father, husband, brother. This is why the nicknames for people of other countries are so important-what is a "gook?" It is not someone like me, with a loving family at home hoping he will come back from this war alive and unmaimed in body or spirit. The same is true of "krauts" or "camel jockeys." They are not human-they are our enemies. But when we dehumanize our fellow humans, we diminish our own humanity. How else could the soldiers of C Company not have seen the people of My Lai as non-combatants, and not as threats? Why else would that fictional Marine, looking for civilian work, not be able to put his soldier persona aside after the war? Why would there be stories of Viet Nam veterans, unable to readjust to civilian life, moving up to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska so that they could be away from populated areas and the memories that haunt them?

I was against the invasion of Iraq before it happened, and I said so. Yes, I know the Iraqi people are better off without Saddam-but that is not the reason for my opposition. I was for the invasion of Afghanistan then, but I am against continuing in that theater any more. Not because I don't wish that the funder of the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, could be caught. But because it is a silly war. It is hard to use a word like "silly" to describe an action in which our soldiers, and the innocent civilians of Afghanistan and Pakistan might be killed. But it is a wholly silly notion that shooting at those people, and bombing their cities and towns will fight terrorism. I don't choose the word "silly" casually, or to trivialize the suffering of all the people on both sides of any war. But the nature of terrorism is that they practice guerrilla warfare-sneak attacks that make people "terrified." You can't hit them by tossing bombs around indiscriminately. You can't just aim and shoot and hit a terrorist. Yes, we've hit some terrorist leaders and training camps, but like the character Mel Gibson played in "The Patriot," they move and hit again. By definition, Benjamin Martin/Francis Marion could have been described by the British as "terrorists," as that is the tactic they used for attacking conventional forces that out-manned and out-gunned them. Conventional warfare is designed to fight conventional soldiers. This makes it even harder for me to think that Ian will be going into the military as we enter the tenth year of a conflict that we only banter about seeing the end of.

College graduation is a time when we think of all the wishes we've held dear for our children. After twenty-two or so years of hopes and dreams have been invested, it is time to think of the return. Ian has more than fulfilled the dreams of his family. We hope our kids will do well-Ian has done far better than that. He is a good person, an excellent student, and he will be an excellent Air Force officer. While he will make mistakes in his life, and have trials and sorrow, I think he has developed the skills to get through them with grace.

So for Ian, and all the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters out there getting ready to head into war, I wish for peace. Peace that lasts. Peace in our time. War to end all wars.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Zieg Who???

I told some friends a story recently about how I was watching a news program as the anchor was telling a story about the "Octomom;" the California woman who has 14 children, 8 she gave birth to after fertility treatments. She became a short-term phenomenon on the news for months in 2009. This particular newscaster said, "I know you all say you don't want to hear about the Octomom, but I know that's not true because you are still watching." I nearly gave myself whiplash switching the channel. The media routinely twists the news, edits important details that change the meaning of the story, and just plain misreports facts. This has been covered in movies, and the media is regularly attacked by both politicians and comedians such as Jon Stewart. The media has a habit of picking our candidates for us by shining a light on those they like, and finding stories that mock politicians they dislike. The 2008 election gave evidence of this is the candidacies of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. How they are portrayed by the media is a frequent complaint of both failed and successful politicians, who, all the while use the media to invent and reinvent their personas. Some portray themselves as victims, some emphasize their points by suggesting how the media will play their actions. You know who you are! There was a time, according to my "History of News" course in college, that things were (yes, really) much worse. In the beginning, there were no big papers. News was spread by way of pamphlets that were published by merchants, always with the slant of helping to improve their business. Since there were no watchdog agencies such as Politifact or, there was no one to question the motives  or the veracity of ugly stories or false allegations against any particular candidate. The "papers" could say whatever they wanted to say about anyone. The mudslides in California would pale in comparison to the amount of mud that was splattered over candidates disliked by certain business men. Believe me, there would be a terrible outcry if the press were allowed to print the things today that it printed then.

I think it is a terrible shame when stories of terrible misdeeds are spread through the media, and they dominate a news cycle for months on end. I especially hate it when groups use the press to spread comparisons of politicians or political parties to Nazis or totalitarians of any stripe. It is unfair and unfounded to use such comparisons-they don't meet the most minimum requirements for truth, and people should not call anyone in politics Nazis, nor should the news media take those comments, make them public, and tar any group with that accusation. I loathed the presidency of Geroge W. Bush, but it bothered me when the term "Nazi" was thrown about in connection to him. It bothers me when it is used against our current president, or against anyone else. In no case does the glove fit.While I do believe that if we had not held elections in 2008, and the Bush/Cheney administration had stayed in power, many of our civil rights would have eroded even more, they had not taken actions that could (up to that point) be compared in any way, to any totalitarian regime that I know of. Whether Dick Cheney's political philosophy smacked of totalitarianism, and his responses, ("So?") to some opinions of the people support that theory of him is another question altogether.

Many of the people at rallies, who hold up signs with such accusations on them, don't have much of a sense of history. There seems to even be the suggestion that providing health care for all Americans is taking the first step toward Nazi-ism. Taking care of the health of the people is not a step that I have EVER heard of being used to cow the people into submission. My reading of history says that the first thing totalitarians do when they want to take over a country and suppress opposition, they limit the access of the people to information. They burn books; they take over newspapers, and radio and television stations. In more recent memory, they have blocked access to information sites such as Facebook and Twitter. In some cases, the internet has been shut down so that opposition can't get information out to the people, or so that an opposition can't even get started. This is the thing we need to fear. This is what happens when our freedoms are truly, truly threatened.

And so, with all the criticisms that can be cast at the media-and I think all of them are true to some extent, thankfully the media are still free. They are free to mess up, and the people are free to pick their news sources. We are free to peruse enough news sources to divine the truth for ourselves-which is really what the founding father thought we should do. They believed that an educated electorate could sift through the garbage and figure out the truth for themselves. And they tried to create a country in which it was our responsibility to do so.

So, if the news station you've been watching posts too many celebrity meltdown stories, write their producers. If the people let them know that we will not watch them until they fix this problem, they will change it. If your news anchors spend too much time bragging about their insider status with the pols, complain, and complain loudly. We don't need our information providers going to glamorous events with the president and congress-we need them reporting on the things that the government is trying to hide from the people.

I once had a professor who had worked for the Washington Post. I questioned him about the party life of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, and I said it gave the appearance that one could not expect objective journalism from the Post. He insisted that there has never been a time when the partying together of the wealthy and famous Post power couple with the government changed the content of exposition in the paper. But I was talking about the appearance that it COULD happen causing readers to mistrust the paper's reporting. And that appearance can not be denied. In journalism school, students are taught that the press is to be the 'watchdog' of government. If they are partying together, and taking their kids to the same exclusive private schools, how can watch-dogging be going on? But it is the responsibility of the readers to decide how much a paper can be trusted. The only way to do that is to expose oneself to many news sources, sift through the garbage that is surely there, and decide what to believe based on a surfeit of information. As long as there is a free press in this country, we are free to do that. But there can be no free country without a free press-no matter how lame the "lame stream media" may be at times.

So, shame on the press for the bad things it does. And shame on the people for allowing it. But worst of all, shame on the people who get their news from only one source. You are responsible for the lies that are daily propogated by whichever news source you choose, whether it be Fox or MSNBC. Shame on you for not being the kind of American the enlightened founding fathers envisioned; the kind who can look through a wealth of bad information, sift it through the pan of your intelligence, and find the gems among the rocks.

And do not accuse anyone of being a Nazi, a socialist, a communist, or any other bad name just for shock value. It diminishes your valid concerns, and gives your critics material to use in dismissing you as a crank.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Blow Ill Wind

Blow, Ill Wind

I’m tired. I’m emotionally tired. Surrounded by negative energy, day in and day out, and utterly befuddled about where the anger is coming from in many cases. I work in a medical office, so some of the folks who are angry get a pass. If they were feeling well, they wouldn’t be here, and may not be their best when they come to my window. But the staff? The families of the patients? Management? People on the bus and on the street? Kids at school bullying other children to suicide, then smirking their way down the perp walk? Shouldn’t we have come further than this as a people and a society?

I’m guessing that every sociologist, psychologist, philosopher, police officer, politician, teacher, and any other theoretician would have different views on why this age of discontent has taken over. Some would blame it on the president; some would blame it on the economy. There would be others who would say that crooked politicians or giant corporations are to blame, but others might blame it on illegal immigration. Old people would blame it on young people. And vice-versa. Teachers will blame it on administrators and parents, parents will blame it on teachers. Management on labor; labor on management. I think it just may be a bit of “all of the above.” Blacks would likely blame it on whites, and the other way around…and around and around.

If I may throw my entirely un-expert theory into the mix, I have to say this is a multi-faceted, complex problem, for which a Proposition 12,579 on the ballot in May or November will not do. Nor will a people’s movement or a social networking site push do the trick. I think we need to go way more basic than that.

Back in the 1980s I was a big fan of the Miss Manners books. I enjoyed her writing as light and tongue in cheek; but she did make an excellent point in all of her books and it is this: the point of manners is not to be anal about which fork to use, or which honorarium to use for a duke or a cardinal. Miss Manners said more than once that the real purpose of all those seemingly silly rules was to make other people feel comfortable. There is the famous story of the queen of England drinking the water from her finger bowl because one of her dinner guests did not know what it was for, and he drank it. The eldest family member at a family gathering sits at the head of the table, and begins eating first as a sign of respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Find out what it means…not just to me, but what it means to treat other people with respect. Is that an answer, or a question?

Both. In order for us to begin to value each other as human beings, we must start at the cradle. Which means that prospective parents must be taught what it is they should teach their children. Which means that teachers must start in school. Which means that governments (I don’t want to argue here about whether I mean the federal government or the states) will need to fund educational programs in which these types of skills are taught. So you see how the solution is just as multifaceted as the problem and the blame?

But then, we’ve had etiquette books around for centuries, so why are we having this discussion now? Well, as much as I hate to say it, I have to blame it on my era-the 1960s and 70s. But the seeds were planted earlier, and only began to bear some fruit then. The development of psychotherapy-in which people stopped being held responsible for their behavior because they could blame their parents or society for ruining them as human beings. I do not doubt that there are bad parents out there-and lazy people who would rather blame someone else than take control of their own destiny and personal behavior-but psychological studies may have been the beginning of the downhill run regarding how we treat our fellow man.

Anyone who is a fan of old movies will remember all the movies that took place during the depression. There were wealthy people, dressing for dinner, going to nightclubs in formal gowns, attending the opera wearing pearls and fur stoles. After World War II, many of these formalities began to wear away. Folks began to wear more casual dresses to the theater. Women marched for the right to wear pants, and I’m glad they did, but it seems that since the 70s, no occasion is worth dressing up for apart from proms, weddings and funerals. And even for prom, the “dress” is questionable; boys consider wearing a tie with anything at all “dressing up.” Dressing up for formal events is not a “rule” to be disagreed with or rebelled against-it is a symbol of the importance of the event. If it is a school event or performance-dressing nicely is a sign of appreciation for the work.
More important than how we dress, is how we listen. It is rude to interrupt. I honestly cannot recall the last time I had a conversation in which I was able to complete a thought before the other person injected his or her response before it was known what my thought really was. I'm guilty of this too.  Why are we in such a hurry that we can't truly listen to someone else rather than planning our next comment before they finish theirs? It makes the other person feel that we do not believe that what they have to say is valuable.

Other people matter. The 1970s saw the rise of lots of books about how one should "look out for number one" and other such ideas. Women marched to be freed from subjugation to their husbands. The civil rights movement was finally seeing some success, so it is understandable that a period of time to think about oneself and ones one dreams and desires. Time to pull back now, and find some balance. Yes, what I want to do is important. But I am not the only one to be considered-there are consequences to every word and action, and considering how my actions and comments may affect someone else is a worthy thing. If I think about how my beliefs might affect someone else, and I moderate my comments-I'm not suggesting being dishonest, just diplomatic, it may prevent hurting someone else and rendering my opinions irrelevant. If I must state a political or religious belief to people who disagree with me, and I do it in a considerate way, they may actually be likely to see the other side as less evil.

And, by the way, those who disagree with us are not evil. They are just different. That's ok. Learning to respect our differences, learning to find joy in the ideas of the other side, is an education. Education is good.
Being civil is not being "phony" or fake. I work with some people from very different worlds, and some of them dislike one another. Some of them dislike me. That's ok-I'm not wild about them either. But I am polite. I greet them in the morning. With a smile. I ask about their weekends, or events in their lives that I knew were going to take place. I don't ask for their cell phone numbers. I don't ask them to be my Facebook friend; that would be fake. But we spend more of our waking hours with our coworkers than we do with the people we actually choose to have in our lives, and I refuse to spend that much of my life giving in to negative energy. I will, therefore, do all I can to make my workplace as pleasant as possible. I see this as a positive thing, not a phony thing. I don't like phonies either.

I remember the restaurant scene in the movie "Pretty Woman." Julia Roberts was not comfortable in a fancy restaurant, and had spent her morning taking a crash course in which fork to use. But during an embarrassing moment the gentleman with whom she and Richard Gere were having dinner made her feel as if the incident happened all the time, and she had no reason to be embarrassed. Much like the finger bowl incident with the queen-the important thing was making the guest feel comfortable, and not like a leper because he wasn't  familiar with the ritual.
I'm not suggesting that oneself is not important-quite the contrary. But I am not more important than you, and vice versa. This is where I think we've got lost, and we need to begin to teach our children this-of course how you feel matters, but so does the other person. Parents need to teach compassion to young children so that they wouldn't consider bullying a school mate to suicide, and might in fact, try to prevent that kind of bullying from happening to a fellow human being. I've complained before about how far off track the 'self esteem movement' has gone. Concentrating on how wonderful one person is misses the point, and detracts from our sense of human value. It is not that I am so great, but that I am equally as good as anyone. John Donne had it so right when he said, "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."  I once heard Deepak Chopra talking about how to teach children compassion, and he mentioned how early parents must ask their children how cruel or bullying behavior makes the victim feel, so that the child will learn empathy. Empathy makes cruelty impossible. Manners are a symbol of empathy. 

And, along with the ability to reason, empathy is what makes us human.