Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From the Crosshairs to the Cross

Frank Rich’s March 27 column dissecting the reactionary Republican resistance to healthcare reform has gone viral. And for good reason − it’s a brilliant essay, laying out the irrationality, hate-mongering, and even outright violence coming from the right wing. From death threats against members of Congress to armed militias in Michigan, it’s an ugly time to be an American.

The desire to find a quick-fix scapegoat for our country’s ills isn’t likely to let up, either, even in the week Christians call holy. For all our supposed enlightenment, the tendencies toward mob mentality and political power plays that characterized Jerusalem two thousand years ago are all too familiar to us.

Sarah Palin and others who pander to white Americans’ basest fears deserve to be called out for their race-baiting, gay-bashing, common good-denying ways, which threaten to pull our country apart. Freedom of speech is a fundamental value, to be sure. But surely it is a misuse of freedom to target political opponents with rifle-site crosshairs on your Facebook page, as Palin is doing.

The connection between violent rhetoric and violent action is too close to make “lock and load” references responsible adult behavior. Just ask the widow of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor murdered by someone influenced by hateful anti-abortion publications. At some point, hate-inciting words become a clear and present danger - even when you claim to be a "soccer mom."

I’m not saying Palin should be jailed, like the socialist leader Eugene Debs was during the First Word War. I know politics is war by other means, and I’m familiar with Clausewitz.

What I’m saying is that there is another way: the way of the cross. The Jesus I follow urged us to love our enemies, not put them in the crosshairs.

The irony is that so many of those uncomfortable with racial and sexual diversity in America call themselves Christians. Thankfully, the singer Todd Snider stands ready, courtesy of You Tube, to offer a glimpse of what it's like on the other side of the cultural barricade.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thrown Another Curve By His Own Demons

Dwight Gooden, once a marvelously talented pitcher, has struggled for years with drug addiction. In the last few years, however, he seemed to have gotten his life on track. After working as an executive for the Newark Bears, a minor league team, he was hoping to land a job as a coach for the New York Mets, the team with which he rose to stardom in the mid-1980s. The Mets had invited him to spring training as an adviser.

Then the former pitcher threw it all away - again. With his five-year-old son in the car, he rear-ended another vehicle and was arrested. New Jersey authorities charged him with driving under the influence of drugs, child endangerment, DWI with a child passenger, and leaving the scene of an accident.

Gooden, 45, has tried drug rehab at least five times, has a half-dozen previous arrests, and served seven months in jail in Florida in 2006. Now comes this incident, in which he put his own son at risk. New Jersey police are not saying which drug they suspect Gooden of using, but he has a history of cocaine abuse.

How will this play out, I wonder, as the years unfold, in Gooden's relationship with his son?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Be Careful Out There

"No hitchhiking," read the bright yellow sign on I-80 East, a few miles east of Des Moines, on the way to Iowa City.

I'd already logged quite a few interstate miles on a spring break trip without seeing any signs like this. It was unusual enough for me to wonder, "Do people really try to hitchhike from the shoulder, when vehicles are whizzing past at 80 mph plus?"

Then I got it. Only a few minutes after seeing the "no hitchhiking" sign, I passed a rest area. The concern animating the sign, I realized, was not so much an accident on the highway as a kidnapping or carjacking at the rest area itself.

When I reached Iowa City about two hours later, I drove along the swoolen Iowa River at dusk. It was a beautful scene, with students jogging and biking on paths paralleling the river. The twilight made the light radiating from the emergency callbox placed strategically along the path more noticeable than it would have been in broad daylight.

"Be careful out there," the police sergeant told the assembled cops as they went out for duty on Hill Street Blues back in the early 80s. Nearly thirty years later, those words still ring true.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Not My Cup of Tea

I've not exactly been in denial about the Tea Party political movement. Today, however, its presence seemed to thread its way throughout my day.

Driving to work, I heard NPR report that Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is forming a nonprofit organization to promote Tea Party ideas. Legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers told Nina Totenberg that, in terms of judicial ethics, the test would come if and when the donors to Virginia Thomas's 501(c)(3), to be called Liberty Central, might have financial interests in cases before, or headed to, the Supreme Court. If that were to happen, Gillers said, the decision as to whether to recuse himself would be up to Justice Thomas, and would not be reviewable.

Later in the day, I stopped by an IRS office in Bloomington to pick up a tax form. I'd done the same thing a year ago, at a nondescript office building near the Mall of America, so I knew just where to go. I took the elevator to the seventh floor - and immediately realized what a difference a year makes. Last year, one could just walk in there and select one's forms. This year, the tiny office features an armed security guard. I'm not sure whether this is an overreaction or a legitimate protection of federal employees who find themselves on the frontlines of a culture war. But there it is.

Then, on my commute home, I heard NPR report on the opposition to the most recent attempts in Congress to pass healthcare insurance reform. Not surprisingly, many of the opponents have Tea Party links. Where did this state of affairs come from?

In historical terms, it's been brewing for quite awhile. I intend to dig out Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which I read back in college, to help understand this. Libertarian thought has powerful arguments to make, and they need to be heard and debated - over coffee, tea, or some other beverage of choice.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Franken's Senate Win: How Ironic

Al Franken is now serving (rather quietly) in the U.S. Senate, after spending months in a protracted recount battle with his Republican opponent and devoting two full years before that to full-time campaigning.

During the campaign, Franken's past as a satirist and (official or unofficial) Democratic spokesperson in the political Culture Wars came under intense scrutiny. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents the St. Paul area in the U.S. House, called a sexually explicit essay he wrote for Playboy "radioactive." Republicans pored over writings, especially Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, trying to find over-the-top statements they could use to portray Franken as "angry."

The Republican strategy didn't work. Their candidate, Norm Coleman, appeared more and more to be a hollow man. By contrast, Franken increasingly came across not as irrationally angry but as righteously passionate about giving working people a voice in Washington, just as Paul Wellstone had done until his untimely death in 2002.

About two weeks before the election, the Star Tribune ran a lengthy profile of Franken that ultimately turned on the concept of irony. A reporter asked him whether it was ironic that the Republicans were trying to use his earlier ironic statements against him. Franken thought for a moment and said it wasn't ironic at all − then laughed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oneself as Another, Framed Through a Mug Shot

The young basketball star said all the right things, the day after his drunken driving arrest.

Timberwolves' power forward Al Jefferson, known an Big Al, was booked into jail in the early morning hours of March 1 on a charge of fourth-degree driving while impaired. He had made the choice to drink and then drive, only to be stopped by an officer of the state patrol on I-394 just outside downtown Minneapolis. A breath test administered at the scene showed his blood-alcohol content to be over the legal limit of .08.

Jefferson was out on bail within an hour, but his mug shot soon appeared on TV. The T-Wolves responded quickly by suspending Jefferson for two games, costing him $293,000 in lost salary.

The next day, Jefferson seemed genuinely remorseful. He apologized to his teammates, team management, fans, and his family (particularly the grandmother who raised him) for making a "stupid choice." He'd seriously considered calling someone to drive him home to Golden Valley, but then got in his car anyway.

In a lengthy interview with the Star Tribune, Jefferson acknowledged that the death of Timberwolves' player Malik Sealy at the hands of a drunk driver in May 2000 makes Jefferson's decision to drink and drive all the more disappointing.

"That's what really makes me feel bad. He was an innocent guy going home and a drunk driver hit him. I couldn't live with myself if that would have happened, if I would have done something to someone like that."

So Big Al seems to get it. Driving while impaired, he could have ended up like the man who killed Sealy. A mug shot is not a pretty picture, but at least Al Jefferson is seeing clearly through its frame.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Limits of Scripted Stoicism

A day after The Hurt Locker took the Oscar for best picture, I went to see The Messenger, another intense drama in a military setting. One involves bomb disposal in Iraq, the other casualty notification stateside. Neither is afraid of exploring the raw emotions unleashed by war.

The protagonist of The Messenger is a young enlisted soldier (played by Ben Foster) who has received commendations for bravery and also severely wounded in Iraq. He forms a two-man team with an older soldier (played by Woody Harrelson) who seeks to insulate him from the emotional demands of notification duty by instilling a rigid professionalism. Never touch the NOK (next of kin), the older man lectures, lapsing into bureaucratic jargon. The casualty notification officer (CNO) is to mpart the news in person but with scripted stoicism, leaving it to the local CAO (casualty assistance officer) to follow up.

It is scarcely surprising when cracks appear in the casualty notification officers' carefully choreographed ritual. The veteran officer initially claims to be in A.A., but as the film progresses he succumbs to bouts of public drunkeness. The younger soldier eventually confesses to the other about how a drunk driver killed his father - and that his father was that drunk driver. The confession continues in a later scene when the younger, decorated soldier admits to suicidal thoughts while being treated for his war injuries.

Naturally, the fissures in the CNO persona become most vivid when one of them feels genuine sympathy and affection for a woman who must be notified of her husband's death. But introducing this plotline doesn't mean The Messenger is an incipient romantic comedy. It's more like eros and thanatos in a dead heat.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Earthquake Jailbreak

Earthquake jailbreaks are not just in the Book of Acts.

In Acts 16: 16-40, Paul and Silas are imprisoned in Philippi by Roman authorities after Paul interferes with a profitable fortunetelling scheme and the fortuneteller's handlers complain. Shortly after midnight, an earthquake strikes, giving Paul and Silas a chance to walk out. They refuse - and make a convert of the jailer, who might have had to commit suicide had he presided over an escape.

Last week, in Chile, over 200 inmates in the town of Chillan fled their prison after the massive earthquake toppled a wall. Of the 269 inmates who escaped, about 60 were immediately recaptured. The 600 inmates still in custody were transferred to a prison in the Concepcion, the region's main city.

One wonders whether anyone has attempted a comparative study of what happens to the human capacity to incarcerate when the natural world implodes. New Orleans, in September 2005, would have to be the first case study. What happened there, in the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina?

Thursday, March 4, 2010


The arc of his life unfolds like a parable.

He was a justly proud Latin player, at a time - two generations ago - when such players were few. His first name was Roberto, yet the Pittsburgh press, all-too-quick to Anglicize, dubbed him "Bobby." The would-be diminutive was not just incongruous; it was insulting.

His was a magnificent all-around game, based on flawless fielding, a rifle arm in right field, and a splendid combination of speed and power at the plate and on the basepaths. He led the Pirates to the World Series title in 1971 and, at the very end of the 1972 season, doubled in his final at bat for his 3,000th hit.

Only a few months later, on December 23, 1972, a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua, killing over 10,000 people and destroying the capital, Managua. To make this even worse, international aid could not get through to people in need because the dictatorship run by Anastasio Samosa was, as several authors have documented, a "kleptocracy."

Clemente took it upon himself to cut through confusion and government theft. He organized a relief mission, based in Puerto Rico, and on New Year's Eve, 1972, took off with four others in a small DC-7 plane loaded with food and supplies. Sadly, the plane crashed into the Caribbean soon after leaving the airport in San Juan.

Today, in the wake of the Hatian and Chilean earthquakes, the passion that drove his attempt to aid the earthquake victims in Nicaragua is a more timely example than ever. And the annual award given by Major Leage Baseball for humanitarian service is still rightly called the Roberto Clemente Award.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pacing the Cage

Kierkegaard and Cockburn (Bruce, that is): two men of spirit.

Consider this paragraph from SK's For Self-Examination in connection with Cockburn's song Pacing the Cage:

[The] solitary man . . . sits, or - if you will have it so - he walks, perhaps up and down the floor, like a lion imprisoned in a cage; and yet, that in which he is imprisoned is a remarkable thing - he is of God or by God imprisoned in himself.

I listened to Pacing the Cage over and over again in the summer and early fall of 2007, as I drove to visit my dying father in a hospice called The Pillars. Would that I were on my way over there right now . . .

Kierkegaard's Ghost Story

I've got to get a post up on the DWI arrest of Timberwolves' power forward Al Jefferson. But it's Lent - and I'm committed to taking account of Kierkegaard's For Self-Examination. (Al Jefferson, one suspects, is doing his own version of that as well.)

Tonight, I read a section in which SK, in discussing faith as a "turbulent thing," seemed to summon Luther from the dead to make a point:

I assume, then, that Luther has risen from his grave. For many years he has lived among us - unknown. For many years he has considered the life we have led, has been observant of all others in this respect, and also of me. I assume that he speaks to me one day and asks, "Are you a believer? Do you have faith?"

In this beyond-the-pale context, SK realizes, he must get beyond his usual equivocation (or outright, all-too-humble denial). His answer then becomes remarkably clear: "Yes, I am a Christian."

I applaud your answer, Soren. I am, too!