Archive for the ‘American Politics’ Category

27 January, 2013

Being Female, Being Soldiers, Being Alone

This is a complicated topic for me so I’m going to mull rather than follow my usual M.O. and pronounce! I’m really interested in knowing what people think – and please, a real conversation, not a bandwagon holler from one POV or the other. I’d have written this as an op ed piece for one or more of the places where my writing usually appears, but I just didn’t feel as though I’d sorted things out enough myself to opine with any real clarity so here I am: thinking aloud more than saying anything definite, setting a few thoughts down.

From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s most recent nerve-irritating, naval-gazing rant on one end and the lifting of the ban on women in combat at the other, and Ann Sheybani’s musing on why men don’t want you to kick their ass, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of what it means to be female in America, a very different variety of female than is found, say, in Sri Lanka.

The Pentagon ruling, in particular, has made me think deeply about what is expected of women – which is very different from what they are physically capable of doing should the need arise. I acknowledge that there are some who agree with Loudon Wainwright III and the sentiments expressed in his classic, ‘Men,’ (listen below), but I wonder if they are the majority. Maybe they are.

NPR has a quick, five-point run down on the basics of the ruling here, so I won’t go into the technicalities around the decision, I am more interested in talking about what our collective consciousness is about women, particularly as it relates to their sense of worth and the realization of their potential.

I’ve been following the posts following Wurtzel’s piece on Facebook, where 40 something, serially heart-broken women claim she is articulating their particular angst, and where the vast majority of women simply want people like Wurtzel to quit whining about their bourgeois troubles. Elsewhere, there are people screaming about how women in combat positions will have to deal with having to relieve themselves in public, and others – mostly women already in combat – swearing that they have what it takes to fulfill their mission in the military.

In my piece for VQR on feminism I spoke about what it meant to grow up in a culture that expected everything from girls/women – an “everything” that was large enough to include both professional success and a joyous embrace of femininity. And though I take exception with some of what Ann Sheybani’s advocacy, (mostly because it is a predominantly heterosexual dealing with of our gender), I understand exactly what she is talking about. I can find a stool and climb up to fetch myself some vast tin of, say, olive oil from the upper reaches of a supermarket shelf, but I routinely glance around and ask for help from the nearest guy (or a taller woman). If I rent a car and cannot figure out the half a dozen new-fangled operations, I find a guy who can do it for me. A full 100% of the time the men to whom I turn for help oblige with charm and a certain self-conscious delight. I am pretty sure it is not that different from the happy feeling I get when a guy turns to me and says “which shirt do you think might look better with this tie?” When a man runs ahead to hold a door open for me and I turn to smile in thanks, I know there is a moment of mutual recognition that we are both playing a role that is as natural as breathing – where I am grateful for being cared for, and he is grateful for the ability to be a caregiver. And it lasts even if I keep walking on and hold the next door open for him.

We talk so much about the fact that there is violence perpetrated against women and yet we seem, as a culture, more often than not, to ask men not to treat us with any gentleness. To be saying, I can look after myself, you don’t need to. I wonder if this world view reduces us, more than it ever has before, to being simply bodies with female parts, rather than human beings with a feminine air, an air that softens the eye of the beholder and thereby protects us from the body with male parts?

Okay, so I know that all sounds very old-fashioned, Southern-belle, conservative, Republican – none of which I am, ack ack – but I hope that I’m getting close to getting at what I’m thinking here. And before somebody starts throwing the phrase “blame the victim” at me, let me categorically state that I am a strong advocate of all of our usual progressive causes surrounding violence against women in any form.

Some things to ponder: many American men of my generation married non-American women; many women of my generation remain terrifyingly accomplished, impeccably turned out, and alone; a disproportionate number of men end up unhappily married to dreadfully shallow women who are, nonetheless, undoubtedly female; the number of wonderful men married to equally wonderful women is alarmingly low. It’s a WTF moment. And it is particularly true for the young girls and boys whom we are raising right now, the ones who will go off into the future imagining that, somewhere down the line, they will be able to make the right partnership (whatever their sexual orientation), with the right person, that it will all just “happen” because it should, even though nearly everything we are teaching them to be right now stacks the odds against that eventuality.

I’m thinking also about two guys I know, Shann Ray, and Elliott Woods. Shann’s reflection on the women he is surrounded by, for Poets and Writers, captures some of the what I imagine “femaleness” means to a man. And Elliott (who served in the US military and has since returned to cover the war in its aftermath), and I have had many conversations about American masculinity, what has become of it, a conversation that skirts (sorry) the issue of what has become of American femininity. Both of these guys are men among men: solidly in thrall of women, appreciative of their immeasurable gifts and strengths, yet also aware of what they, as men, bring to the table, a warm, care-giving, courageousness that is as humble before fragility as it is brave before challenge.

It makes me think about war. About women heaving 200 pound men fallen in battle back to safety as a way of life, not in a time of dire necessity. About men fighting to “protect a homeland,” yet wondering (setting aside the political discussion of wars and invasions undertaken on a whim), what there is to protect if it is nothing more than themselves. It makes me think of the kids that Sonia Nazario speak of in her book Enrique’s Journey, the ones who say, repeatedly, “yes, she can send us money, but we’d rather have our mother with us here.” About what we create as a culture when we say all of can do everything, yet forget that if all of us do everything then there really is no need for the creation of meaningful relationships with each other, or for the establishment and nurturing of a collective community to which we bring what small or great part it is in us to bring to it.

It makes me think about an exchange with an old friend who has been undergoing a lot of turmoil who said, when I congratulated her on her strength, how tired she was of being strong, how ready she was to embrace that part of her that was fragile and have someone else (in this case her partner), carry her through the tough times. It makes me think of the junior prom, and the beautiful, smart, absolutely amazing girls who went alone, and the equally wonderful boys who also went alone, because the girls did not know how to let the boys know they cared about being asked, and the boys were too intimidated to do the asking of girls who never looked like they needed anything from anybody that they couldn’t get for themselves.

So there’s my thinking for this Sunday. How about you?

20 January, 2013

Nudity in the Homeland

Cable came to our house only on the heels of a Phillies season that had to be watched. I still don’t know how to use it or what to watch. There was a time when the small resident thought that TV meant the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. She and by then her sisters were quite possibly a handful of mites who watched nightly as a list scrolled on the screen at the end of the program, the names of those killed in the invasion of Iraq. I confess now that I, seeking relief from writing during lunch, often click it on and watch whatever happens to be available – usually re-runs of Old Christine and, presumably new episodes of What Not To Wear, while waiting for the ads to cease on CNBC or CNN.

Even before cable, though, a world of things I didn’t know existed had begun to occupy my headspace, though much of it has come belatedly. We watched ‘The Wire’ on Netflix, and I have come out as a zealot with regard to that show, in person and in a post here. Feel free to ridicule the statements made about Cable therein. More recently – thanks to a Roku Box – we’ve watched ‘Breaking Bad,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ using the same device. So it seemed only natural that we should also take a look at another one of the shows that “people” rave about, ‘Homeland.’

Granted, with a title like that in the wake of the devastation caused to so many people both overseas and here by the administration that sent the country to war, and began to set up and fight strawmen here (see Amitava Kumar’s excellent article on the controversy of the Ground Zero community center for an example), under the guise of protecting the homeland, complete with the Dept. of Homeland Security, I knew some of what to expect. Still, I was disappointed and, worse, disgusted after watching the first three episodes last night.

Arab speakers and practicing Muslims as potential terrorists or just plain suspicious? Check. Long spells of full frontal female nudity that has nothing to do with anything? Check. Asinine rehashed plot? Check

It is hard to give any show that deals specifically with post-9/11 gung-ho terrorists-are-everywhere! scenarios a star rating after seeing Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Whether you are blown away by it and defend her depiction of torture like Manohla Dargis does for the NYT, or whether you are blown away and condemn her refusal to depict the full truth of it (that torture discloses next to nothing) as Matt Taibbi does for Rolling Stones, that movie has substance. It makes a person – particularly an American person – pause just a little, ponder the average yeah-man-let’s-kick-butt understanding of foreign policy.

As far as ‘Homeland’ the TV show is concerned, there is nothing to make me keep watching. Idiotic portrayals of people who look like they might be Arab-speakers? I see it all the time in the streets and public spaces of America, particularly airports. Rehashed plot? I’ve already seen ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ Twice. Once with Frank Sinatra and once with Denzel Washington in lead roles. At roughly an hour and a half running time that’s a lot smarter way to spend my time. And breasts. I’ve got those covered in every sense of the word.

Pretty little is as loathsome to me as the exploitation of the naked female body to no greater purpose than to tittilate a population starved of imagination. Well, there’s the abuse of children, the glorification of drugs and Rush Limbaugh, but not by a great divide. McNulty had some good sex in ‘The Wire’ (with his wife, Elena, with his mistress, Ronnie Pearlman), but those scenes, few and far-between, were directly connected to his character as a skirt-chaser. Walt, in ‘Breaking Bad,’ has one sex scene with his wife, Jesse two with his now dead girlfriend. In three episodes of ‘Homeland’ there have been so many long pans of Morena Baccarin’s breasts that I wonder if the perkiness of her chest was the reason she was cast in this role, and it seems imperative that Melissa Benoist is displayed front and rear to full effect – let us not forget the girl-on-girl crotch swipe in this same scene – to no apparent purpose.

It made me think fondly of ‘Downton Abbey,’ where events that are anticipated and the subject of numerous episodes – the wedding between Mary and Matthew for instance – are not overdone. We know there’s a wedding, we see her heading out, and that’s it. No excruciating drag-out of the inevitable in dis-service to the viewing public. We’ve seen weddings, we know what happens, and unless there is something unusual happening at one – Edith jilted at the altar in ‘Downton Abbey,’ – there is no need to bash us over the head with it.

Perhaps it is because I write fiction and love to read books, and I’m acutely aware of over-telling and being over-told-to. There is such a thing as too much information and ‘Homeland’ – with regard to naked women, but also with regard to its prejudices – makes it quite clear that the writers underestimate the viewer. Who wants to be taken for someone whose intellectual capacity is that of the lowest common denominator, the insular, ignorant, porn-fed, American male? Not me.

17 December, 2012

Referendum on Gun Control

I’m over at the Huffington Post with the political POV on the Newtown massacre. Herewith, an excerpt (below). You can read the full article here.

As human beings, we mourn for the innocents who had not yet learned to fear, who might have stood and gazed at their assailant, not undertanding his intention, never associating violence as being directed at them, too young to know that there would ever be a time when they might need to hide from an adult who might have reminded them of an older cousin, a young uncle. We imagine those children falling petal like, and just as unblemished, forever six, forever seven. And as we consider those faces, we must also remember that, as fellow-citizens, we have something that has been forever denied to them: our voices.

When we speak of gun control, what we are really asking for is a culture that is not driven by the anticipation of and response to violence.

A majority of Americans support placing restrictions on the purchase and possession of weapons, although in conversation we are wont to refer to the NRA quite as though that body – and not we, the majority – defines the national debate. We speak of national legislation, of lobbyists who are funded by billionaires, of the insurmountable odds of going up against that Goliath. Yet, as was pointed out by Malcolm Gladwell in an outstanding piece in the New Yorker, a few years ago, Goliath was beaten, as every bully is someday beaten, by David’s decision to refuse to play by Goliath’s rules. Indeed, he uses the research of the political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft, to demonstrate that those who refused to play the rules of the powerful went from being victorious 28.5 percent of the time to emerging as winners 63.6 percent of the time.

6 October, 2012

One Evening in Lower Merion

Was the debate upsetting? Hell yeah and for a number of reasons, including the fact that my twitter account suddenly froze me out for having more than 1000 tweets – not possible! Mostly, it had to do with expectation. I expected the Prez to wipe the floor with the skanky scum-bucket that has risen to the top of the Republican ticket, this varmin who produces in me the same reaction I have when I walk into a public toilet (very very rare), at a rest-stop on the highway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, open the door to a stall and see all that has been left behind by a humanoid fleeing the evidence of their diarrhoea.

Expectation. Kills our spirits everytime. Because expectation is based on ignoring a whole lot of information and signals we’d rather forget exist. Like the fact that a Black man (or woman) cannot get angry, a phenomenon both acknowledged and eviscerated by D. W. Mason in her article, “I’m Angry. I Can’t Get Angry.” C’est vrai. I can’t speak for the president, but I can speak for myself. I’ve been in those shoes. Like when the woman at the laundry refuses to return a pair of pants I’d asked to be hemmed and I repeat her words, “You aren’t going to give me back my own pants?” in sheer bafflement and she runs quaking to the back of the shop, grabs the pants and shoves them at me as though I had threatened extreme violence; arson, perhaps, or a laundry-house bloodbath. You don’t think these things happen unless you don’t happen to look like I do. And we all forget – particularly those of us with our educated affectations – that things have not changed a whole heck of a lot for any of us. Yes, not even if you are President.


Last evening I took a walk in the neighborhood. Upperclass, most White, mostly wealthy Lower Merion Township. I was walking with a friend by a little park which sits by the Merion railway station. With us were four children. They were playing flashlight tag in deference to the lack of light – it was about 7.30pm. It didn’t take too long for not one but two police cars to pull up. Apparently, the people across the street complained about “noise.” My friend and I came running up as the first squad car stopped, to explain that these were our children, they were with us. To be fair, the police officer found it utterly ludicrous that people would have a problem with “children playing on a friday evening.” He described those who had called him as cranky people. But what struck me is that, for the entire time that he stood there, he made no eye-contact with me. None. When he asked for our names and addresses (asked her, for us both), and I volunteered to give mine since it was my neighborhood, he continued to look at her and say, irritably, “well, whose children are these?” “Ours,” she said, “both of us.” I gave him my name and address and telephone number, and he talked a while longer – along with his fellow officer who showed up in the second car – but there was no recognition that there were two women standing there. Two human beings. To this man there was one and she was white and visible and I was not and did not matter.

Perhaps things have changed for children growing up in a world where the very idea of a single ethnic strain in ones lineage is, quite possibly, fantasy. But there are a whole lot of adults for whom nothing has changed. And it is the adults who will be voting. Think it is “dumb” or “difficult” to believe that people will buy the lies coming out of that Republican white man’s mouth? Think again. It isn’t that hard when you don’t want to believe the Black man next to him deserves to exist. Right after the RNC convention there was a poster that did the rounds on Facebook. If someone can find it, please post it here. The text said something along these lines: “The Republican Party: An old white man talking to an imaginary Black man.” Sadly it’s not just the Republicans. And it is not just to an imaginary president. I have not asked my friend if she noticed what happened. For all the usual reasons. I’m pretty certain that our combined outrage at the curmudgeons who peered at us through their bay windows (along with their children!), is nothing compared to the anger and despair I felt at channeling Ralph Ellison.

I am an invisible man.
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe;
nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.
When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

21 March, 2012

The American War That Nobody Has Heard Of

On August 3, 2006, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelem (LTTE),slaughtered over 100 Muslim civilians including women and children at Pachchanoor, Sri Lanka. Before then, the LTTE butchered 103 Muslims while they wre praying in the grand mosque of Kattankudiy in the coastal city of Batticaloa. You can see the images of these attacks here. It is not pretty. The Tamils had no cause to fight the Muslims, their grievances – imagined or real – were directed at the Sinhalese majority. The LTTE, however, and its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, were committed to the matter of ethnic cleansing in the North. The attacks on the Muslims were part of that effort which also left entire villages of Sinhalese peasants murdered in cold blood in a war that lasted thirty years.

These are events that merit mentioning given the current effort by the United States to table a resolution alleging that the Sri Lankan government perpetrated war crimes during the last days of the war. For the past week there have boysbeen demonstrations at the Hague by pro-LTTE groups alleging that the Sri Lankan government set out to kill the Tamil civilians trapped between the army and the terrorists (The LTTE has been referred to by the FBI as the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world and it was banned, albeit only after 9/11, by the girlsUS and the UK). It is an easy thing to imagine: a government out of patience with repeated ceasefires and the interventions of foreign governments committed to speaking on behalf not of Tamils but of the LTTE, sets out to murder all the Tamils in the North (the 54% of the Tamils who live outside the North and East were, presumably, safe, odd as that may sound given the allegations).

Except that it isn’t true. Civilians died, yes, though not in as great a number as they did in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the hands of the United States military. But not only was there no massacre of all the civilians trapped in the North, most of them, over 100,000, were rescued between April 20th and April 22nd, 2009, from the LTTE which fired on them and placed a suicide bomber among them as they tried to reach the refugee camps.

Sri Lanka fought this war for thirty years against the interference of powerful foreign groups, and in the midst of a tsunami Sri Lanka War Victorythat devastated the country, leaving 40,000 dead and 1.5 million people displaced, and the struggles of a small country caught in a failing global economy. It fought this war against a terrorist organization while, simultaneously, providing the entire civilian population controlled by the LTTE (as well as LTTE cadres), with water, electricity, infrastructure, education, and all forms of social welfare available to the rest of the island, including food and medicine. This has to be a first for any government in the world.

The war in Sri Lanka ended in May, 2009. Since then, the economy is thriving with unprecedented investment child in infrastructure from the South to the North. Sri Lanka instituted the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC), and conducted hearings in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Government of Sri Lanka is engaged in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC, despite being blamed for being “slow.” southafricaConsider that we were willing to wait for two years of hearings to be completed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (between 1996 and 1998) in South Africa. Consider that we were willing to wait four more years, until 2002, until the last of the reports from that commission were presented to the President.

It is politics. Geo-politics. Always. A country with a president who watched its military murder a terrorist-leader, Osama bin Laden, in cold blood after having violated all rules of sovereignty in Pakistan, then disposed of that body out of public view, hardly has a moral leg to stand on when it comes to decrying the death of a terrorist leader who was killed in a final battle at the end of thirty years of war that held a country hostage. This resolution is not about Sri Lanka, it is a play by the US for power in South Asia, a play that is causing the US to call in every favor they’ve ever been promised, and includes the investment of millions of dollars in buying-off and buying-up.

Which brings me back to those Muslims. The LTTE was a group that, repeatedly, demonstrated a particularly virulent hatred for Sri Lanka’s Muslim population, a minority group that has always remained within the democratic system, a group that has never, not once, in the history of that nation, ever perpetrated crimes against their fellow citizens. Pakistan recognizes this as do other Muslim nations. Can the United States, in the wake of riots after the burning of copies of the Quo’ran and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by Robert Bales, not to mention its decade long occupation of Iraq and years of invading Afghanistan and the drone strikes on innocents in Pakistan, including 160 children between 2004 and the end of 2011, afford to align itself with yet another anti-Muslim organization? Particularly one that is proscribed by its own state department?

Sri Lanka has many friends. Sri Lanka is also a predominantly Buddhist country, used to thinking about the evolution of events in terms of lifetimes, not a 24 hour news-cycle. Whether they win or lose in Geneva, Sri Lanka will endure. graffiti-waving-american-flag-graphicsThe coordinates are different for an America struggling to hold on to a semblance of relevence on the world scene. In a time when the Muslims are out in force against the United States – Pakistan, Aghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine, are but five – the United States has but one democracy it can count on as an ally: Sri Lanka. India has, under internal pressure, expressed its support for the US, thereby alienating the second largest population of Muslims in the world, its own. Today, the Muslim population of Sri Lanka joined the ranks of their brothers and sisters in the rest of South Asia to protest the actions of the United States.

It is governments that control airspace, ports, resources and investments. Not terrorist groups. And the Sri Lankan government will turn with great ease toward China and toward its allies in the Muslim world. The last thing that the US needs is to provide further proof that it is, by policy, military exercises and deliberate intent, anti-Muslim. It is not time for a resolution against Sri Lanka. It is time for the Obama administration to rethink its strategy.

Note: The photographs above depict, in order, former female members of the LTTE, former child soldiers recruited by the LTTE (original photograph first appeared in the Washington Times), injured Sri Lankan soldiers on parade, Sri Lankan child post-war, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and de Klerk after the end of apartheid and a graffiti version of the American flag)

23 February, 2012

My 99 Problems v. Syria’s 1

syriaJust yesterday I posted on FB that I had “99 problems” and was trying to whittle them down to 98. I was feeling overwhelmed. I have two out of state meetings/conferences to go to, one of which involves a flight, sub-zero temperatures and 10,000 other people. I have mountains of readings to finish, all of which have to be done with the kind of obsessive attention that goes with my personality. I have papers to grade. I have a book to edit. A father to coerce, one who is digging in his heels and refusing to get on a plane and come here. I have several small battles to fight in the larger war against girls and women. I have the detritus of everyday living to sweep up – those dishes, dirty clothes, showers, exercises, medical check ups, and groceries that fill up the day. I have a ton of minding to do, too.

But then Marie Colvin was killed and my attention was drawn to the last news report she filed for CNN. I read through and clicked on the video that was attached. It is an account of a Syrian baby during his last moments of life. He is wearing the kind of shirt that babies in Sri Lanka have been dressed in for as long as I can remember; a simple piece of cloth that even women who can’t sew – women like me – are able to cut and sew. The baby shirt has two arm holes, and a tie around the neck. The back is open in deference to the heat. Women in Sri Lanka sit and sew small hills of these shirts, usually embroidered on the front with flowers and paisley motifs. The baby in the video looks like any baby, and in the video he gasps for breath, his eyes already shut. Marie Colvin says, in the voiceover, that what was terrible about this scene was the silence in which the baby passes away. It is true. He does not cry, he does not flail, his chest heaves and heaves and heaves and then he is gone.

It made me think. A long-ago friend once told me she took to pediatrics because children, even those with terminal illnesses, never complained as much as adults did. They took their illness in stride, living until they no longer could. Here in my Philadelphia suburb we have the story of Alex, the little girl who in life launched Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the single most effective fundraiser for research into childhood cancer worldwide. I don’t know that this Syrian baby, whose passing was witnessed by his grandmother because she was already at the hospital helping other people, knew anything more than a month or so of peace, then nothing but mayhem around him and terror in the faces of his family, before arriving in this hospital at this time, with that particular spokeswoman to relate his story. But, perhaps, no matter what we all think of the politics between large and small nations, between Syrian, America, Russian and Chinese ambassadors, or of despots, tyrants, diplomats and apologist, nobody will turn away from the sight of this particular death. And, perhaps, this brief life lived in innocence, and the journalist who gave her all, will combine to be the face and the voice that brings peace to Syria.


10 December, 2011

Guest Blog: What Kind of Country?

Here is the second guest post (the first was from Rhiannon Richardson), from the Montgomery County Community College Writers’ Festival workshop. Linda Hubbard-Cooke writes: “I grew up in a small town on Lake Erie in northern Ohio and have lived the past 17 years in suburban Philadelphia with my husband and two sons. The road from Ohio to raising a family in Pennsylvania included several years living outside of the United States. Living in other countries changed my life in many ways and has influenced my world view.” Her post, a reflection on the choices before us as a country, is below. The cartoon I added to her post belongs to the Occupy For Accountability site.

I have been very discouraged recently about the direction that America seems to be heading. What kind of society will we be in 10 or 20 years? What kind of country will my children and their children live in? What kind of country will I grow old in?

My thoughts return to the early 80’s and my time as an exchange student in Sweden, a country which had high levels of income equality and low levels of corruption. Sweden has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Then in the early 1990’s, I lived and worked in Venezuela, a country which was in many aspects the polar opposite. The middle class in Venezuela was shrinking while a small percentage of the country controlled over 50% of the wealth. Corruption and poverty were commonplace. Which country are we more like today and more importantly in what direction are we heading?

In the 90’s corruption in Venezuela was ubiquitous. When a Venezuelan policeman stopped me in my car, he did not want to give me a ticket but was looking for a payoff. He threatened to impound my car but a Venezuelan friend simply offered the policeman enough money to buy a nice dinner and we went on our way. It was common to pay off government officials whenever you needed something done, or undone. The company I worked for had an employee whose sole job was to use his political connections to pay off government officials when needed and he was known to have a number of politicians and customs officials in his pocket. I found this system of corruption hard to live with. Although illegal, this corruption was an accepted part of the culture and continues to date. The 2011 Corruption Perception Index, a ranking of countries according to perception of corruption in the public sector today ranks Venezuela near the bottom (164 out of a total 178 countries). In contrast, Sweden is 4th in the ranking and the United States is 22nd.

Corruption is defined as the abuse of power for private gain. One of the biggest issues America faces today is the corruption in our government. income-cartoonThis corruption however is legalized and systemic. The campaign financing system lends itself to corruption. Elected officials who govern taxation and set regulations are being funded through the money of large corporations and the very rich, those very people most impacted by taxation and regulation. As an example, the New York Times last week reported that Democratic Congressman Dan Boren of Oklahoma is co-chairman of the Natural Gas Caucus yet much of his family wealth is from oil and natural gas and one of his top donors is Chesapeake Energy. Technically this does not violate House ethics rules yet it is clearly a form of bribery – money flowing to a person of power to influence their conduct. The challenge in labeling this as corruption is that it is not easy to measure the impact of the money flowing through elections.

Some of the corruption is, however, more blatant and measurable. According to a recent article about the book Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer, the laws that prevent ordinary American citizens from practicing insider trading do not apply to members of Congress. Some have benefited financially through insider trading and by the laws they are enacting. As stated in the article:

“…some of Congress’s most prominent members are in a position to routinely engage in what amounts to a legal form of insider trading, profiting from investment activity that, [Schweizer] says, “would send the rest of us to prison.”’

So what kind of country will our children and grandchildren inherit? Any concept of fairness in our system will depend on an informed and involved public, the strength and character of our leaders and most importantly a shared vision of what our country should be. Continued unbridled corruption and widening income inequality will place America on a path towards a third world society like Venezuela where money opens doors, buys power and influence while the middle class and opportunity for our children will largely disappear.

5 December, 2011

A Fight in Good Hands

srilanka08-789_2I say what I think. Perhaps that’s a bit of an understatement. I say what I think about a multitude of things and often when I’m saying what I think I am in direct conflict with what a majority of people may be thinking about the same thing, or I am at odds with a more comfortable point of view. For people who don’t know me personally it may seem as though I am constantly in the thick of one sort of battle or another, usually against forces far greater than any I could muster, often against those who are going to cream me in the long run. srilanka08-1122_2 I learned from the best: my father is now in retirement and lives as he does because he stuck to his guns through decades of service to multiple governments, my late mother was – and, in memory, remains – beloved precisely for her willingess to tell it like it is. My brothers and I carry the torch. (Only one of us, the oldest, is able to let some things go unsaid and I attribute that to his deeper involvement in scripture and his renunciation of much of the noise produced by politics).

What sustains me is what sustained and sustains them: a belief that, if I do not shy away from doing my small part, in the end, good will prevail for us all. To paraphrase the Pink Floyd song, I guess img_3871the “walk on part in the war” has always seemed more preferable to the people in my family than the “lead role in a cage.” And though my mother, in particular, often worried about our fate, and sometimes tried to tell us how hard the fall is from the edge of that limb up high in the sky, or how bare our necks looked exposed as they were, what could we do but do as she did, do as our father did: keep climbing, keep sticking our necks out.

People who do know me know that – whatever it looks like from the outside – I try to live a peaceable, compassionate life, attending just as much to moments of grace as I do to the social/injustices that plague us. And, as a rule (okay, with the exception of the fool who turns on the left turn signal after we are already at the stop-light), I tend to take people at their word, to accept that they are who them say they are, to believe that they are well-intentioned until proven otherwise. When I do find something that gets under my skin, more often than not, what I can bring to a cause is my voice. If I have been given the gift of words, then it stands to reason that I should use it to honor the gift-giver by using it to the best of my abilities. But passion and words are both double-edged swords.

This weekend, I fell into conversation with a neighbor. We had both been concerned about the misuse of authority on the part of an individual employed by this school district and we had talked about bringing our concerns to the relevant people. Although he had decided, in consultation with his wife, that it would be better not to become involved, I have no doubt that, after our conversation, they will decide to do so. But it was what he said that gave me pause. Touching my shoulder in genuine reassurance, he said, we know the fight is in good hands. i.e, mine.

Like I said, I learned from the best. I learned to speak up. But I also learned that nobody gets anything done by themselves. Audre Lorde said the following words: “there are no single issue struggles because we do not live single issue lives.” img_3338The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect example of what Lorde was talking about, despite the fact that so many seem not to understand the reason for its seeming “chaos.” But we also do not fight our battles alone. The boy with his finger in the dyke may have prevented the town from being inundated and countless human beings from drowning, but he suffered greatly while doing it. I do not imagine that I am that important, or that anything I do is comparable to that story, but I do know that standing alone is, well, lonely, often futile and usually fatal to ones wellbeing.

Long ago – it seems – in the months after I had returned to the US after a long period back home, when I was still looking for work and spent my time watching the Senate hearings on TV, hour by endless hour, I went to Newark, NJ to stand on a street-corner to protest the attacks against Bill Clinton in the throes of the Lewinsky scandal. It was an event organized by a relatively small group called Censure and Move On, a group which has since become a behemoth power in politics. As we drove up we saw that, on a grey and rainy afternoon, there were two people standing on the corner with umbrellas. My companion – whose constant charge has been to save me from myself – surveying the embarassing scene from a fair distance said: “Ru, don’t be nuts. Let’s not make fools of ourselves standing in the rain with two people.” The words that sprang to my lips came not from me but from generations of people who had felt the same way I did right then: “That’s when it is important to stand out there,” I said. “What is the use of joining something when there are a thousand people there? This, when it is difficult and uncomfortable, this is when it counts.” With that I stormed off and, as he often does, my husband soon followed even though this type of shenanigan is not his thing, it has never been; it will always be difficult for him but, to his everlasting credit – much more than I deserve because, hard though it may be, I grew up learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable – he has always done it when it counts.

I may have the words to write persuasively about my case, and those words probably give the impression that the “fight” whatever it is, can be successfully won by me. I may speak with passion for my candidate, my cause, my peeve, and that passion probably makes people believe that I’m “passionate enough for the both of us.” srilanka08two-773_2Neither is true. Nothing, absolutely nothing, except for love for another and enlightenment of the soul, can be accomplished alone. No matter how strong the words, no matter how great the passion. Everything takes a village. And then many villages. And entire regions. And a country. And many countries. But mostly, it takes more than one. The fight is not in good hands if it remains in the hands of a single person because that is usually a fight that is going to be lost. So if you ever wonder if it is really necessary to raise your hand and be counted when somebody else seems to have it covered, or if it seems a little out of your comfort zone – even though you are invested in the outcome – or if you are worried about what this one or that one might think of you – even though you really hope the fight will be won – rest assured, it is. It is always necessary. Unless you are equally invested, equally hopeful that the fight is going to be lost. If that is the case, by all means, remain silent.


5 November, 2011

Whose Wars are These?

0000-166The wars that permeated my childhood were those that were internal to my country, Sri Lanka. Therefore everybody was involved. There was no refuge from it, no matter your social status, particularly if you were male. You could be killed going to market, you could be abducted from your dorm-room, you could be left to burn with a tyre around your head, you could be shot, you could die with dozens of others in a suicide attack. Everybody knew where everybody else stood, where their sympathies lay, what hue colored their politics. More than that, everbody knew someone who had died and most of us knew more than a few. We did not have a particular love for living in a state of war, far from it. But they were the circumstances of our history for nearly three decades, and we lived or died along with the fortunes of our country.

I would like to believe that the fact that America’s wars have been waged overseas is the reason why this kind of intimacy with mayhem and loss does not pervade every home here. I would like to imagine that it is universally mystifying to Americans that America could be fighting two major wars and the vast majority of people could go on with their lives knowing not one soul who has been dispatched to kill and die, nor any who returned injured or in a casket. I know only three. The husband of my college room-mate, the son of a Veterinarian in the town I used to live in, and a fellow-writer and photographer whose concerns mirror mine; none of them untouched by their years of service, one of them lost entirely. How strange it must have been for these three young men to return home to people fretting about organic apple cider and home-made iced-tea, about peanut-free classrooms and special activities for those who do not celebrate any one of the national holidays. “Americans and their damn bottles of water,” one of them quipped to me. “What a joke. Like they really imagine they might suddenly die of thirst.”

How strange that when I posted a link to an essay by one of those veterans, Elliott Woods, on Facebook, nobody clicked it. This is what I said in my note:

Just read this piece of reporting by Elliott Woods. Between poppy palaces and narchitecture and 100 minefields still waiting to explode in greater Kabul, between 15,000 troops and upto 1.5 million Afghans killed during the reign of the Soviets and the advent and departure of the Americans is a story that too few of us know. Even those of us who in one way or another contribute to the “donor money” that accounts for four-fifths of the $14 billion GDP in Afghanistan.

I decided to see if it were the case that nobody was paying attention or if nobody cared. I followed up with a joke about Facebook cut and pasted from some online source for a thousand and one jokes. There were the comments I had been missing. Yes, nobody cared. We care about the here, the now, and the herenow does not involve Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, vast swaths of Africa or most of the rest of the planet and certainly not those who were forced to go there to commit the acts no mother raises her child to perpetrate, and who must then return to our midst, shattered and frayed, this generations particular brand of invisible men.

How strange that Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen went down in a hail of enemy fire aimed at him by American policemen during the img_4139course of a peaceful protest in the streets of Oakland, California. After two tours of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Iraq’s Anbar province, site of some the war’s fiercest battles, this young man who had been just 14 years old when we experienced the events of 9/11, lay on the streets on Tuesday, the 25th. Why? Because he had divined that much of the economic inequity in America was fuelled by the military industrial complex. That, and the fact that nobody gave a damn where he had been and what he had done or seen, just pass the cocktail shrimp and Muscat.

According to a report released by the Center for a New American Security, from 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. Scroll down on the report and we find the statement that the “VA estimates that 18 veterans take their lives every day,” and then goes on to state that they have no way of knowing the accurate number because of their inability to track the veterans.

Long ago when I used to watch The News Hour on PBS for my one hour of not doing, the segment used to end with a silent screen on which appeared the names of the newly dead Americans. I don’t know that they still do it, I don’t watch anymore, but I do know there is a searchable database on the PBS website which lists the dead, from 1 on the page 1-25 of 4885. That list stopped on August 2010. I no longer know how many people have died. I remember writing about the 2000th soldier, Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., back in 2005 for the local paper in Waterville, Maine.

Michael Meade, in an interview done by John Malkin which appears in The Sun (November, 2011), speaks, among other things, about the distinction between warriors and soldiers:

“I work with veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am perosonally against war, but I also understand the sense of exile and the alienation felt by people returning from all the battlefields of life. I’ve been working with veterans for years and watching the struggles of souls trying to find a way home. in a sense they are some of the most exiled people in modern culture. There is a burden of tragedy that they’re carrying for all of us.

Mass culture distorts our instincits and inclinations. Some people are natural fighters so they become soldiers. But soldiers are the opposite of warriors: soldiers do what they’re told; warriors do what they feel is best for everybody…A warrior isn’t looking for war. A warrior looks to be of service to something beyond him or herself. What’s happened is that the culture uses that willingess to serve its own narrow ends…When you take the willingness to sacrifice and aim it in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons, you get damage, and not just to the individual. That damage is inherited by future generations. For healing to occur, the truth has to come out, and by ‘truth’ I don’t mean which side was right. That’s the small argument. The truth is that souls were hurt, and healing is required for the individuals as well as the collective.”

That burden of tragedy – of wars waged, of warriors forced into the servitude of soldiering – that burden belongs, surely, to all of us in whose name these things were perpetrated, not just the servicemen coming home to places that are unreconcilable with the places they’ve been in, places filled with people who don’t recognize them and in some ways never saw them to begin with. What is a human being to do, ever, about war? What is an artist to do? What can a writer say? If my words cannot move anybody to see more clearly, listen more closely, of what use are they?

It is the 5th of November. I know why I felt compelled to write about war and veterans today. I write about them because I’m thinking about a beautiful, talented writer who is my friend. I have never met anybody in her family. I know nothing about her brother. She never spoke of him until I emailed her to tell her that I had lost my mother and did not know how I would go on. She told me about him then, about his time in Iraq and the fact that he had, upon his return, unable to reconcile himself to all that he had witnessed and participated in, killed himself. Today marks the seventh anniversary of his passing. I have nothing to offer her or to any other family that has gone through this particular kind of loss, except my attention to the whole of their experience, the whole of their grief.


3 November, 2011

I am over at The Rumpus with a review on Steve Almond’s new collection of fiction, God Bless America(Lookout Books/UNC Wilmington, October 2011). You can read the whole post here. Below, a short excerpt:

God Bless America, a collection that should be seen as part of a body of work intent on eviscerating and then forgiving our pitiful culture of excess, this social milieu in which we—our bodies bent to their “awful purposes”—run amok with the faintest grasp on reality and even less on our own motivations. We spout platitudes on the one hand, like Billy in the title story, about this “land built by opportunists,” and face painful truths on the other, as Sophie does in “Not Until You Say Yes”: “Nothing was ever done, it was always suffering some improvement. Were human beings really such factories of discontent?” Yes, we are, and Almond is a writer who is as painfully aware of the ludicrousness of our predicament as he is a believer in the possibility of our salvation.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.