Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dimming the light: what Bhutto said to us

Even before Benazir Bhutto lost her life this past week it seemed to be that the troubles of that far off country were speaking as much about our own country’s politics and principles, as those of Pakistan.

First there was the controversy over Barrack Obama’s comments about the Taliban and al-Qaeda resort to the western frontiers of Pakistan. The Democratic presidential candidate found himself being criticized by rivals even within his own party for a fairly basic observation: Six years removed from September 11th, it was just a bit odd to still be sitting by, hat in our lap and waiting for permission to root out the actual culprits behind the attacks. Knowing full well the region where their strongholds and hiding places are, we await “an appropriate time” to bring them to justice.

A misdirected war had been premised on the capture of these people. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been expended. Obama was somehow rash and reckless to argue we should presume the prerogative to pursue our actual enemies into the territory of a supposed ally. This was apparently very naive of him.

Senator Obama was supposed to have understood that we have a great ally in The War on Terror in the nation of Pakistan and in the person of General, President Pervez Musharaf. We have celebrated this rare friendship over the years, funneling something in the order of $10 billion in U.S. aid to the regime since the Fall of 2001 (just about the time the Musharaf regime stopped openly supporting the Taliban).

Oh, the past year saw the fruits of this supposed friendship called into question somewhat. Late 2006 had seen Musharaf broker agreements with regional tribal leaders that in essence established a zone of refuge for the remnant Taliban and al-Qaeda forces along the border country with Afghanistan. Where five years of deployment for the military under his command had failed to subdue our common enemy, the good general suggested that turning the responsibility over to local tribal elements who were largely sympathetic to the Taliban cause would be the logical course of action. Not surprisingly this gave rise to a resurgence of actions against U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in the neighboring region and no small amount of tension between Musharaf and the Afghan government of Hamid Kharzai.

"There's no question that sanctuary exists, and that it's a major asset for the Taliban," Lieutenant General Douglas Lute explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony this past Spring. "We ought to press Pakistan for at least an acknowledgment that the deal that they made has not worked out,” Committee Chair, Senator Carl Levin responded. (Seems reasonable.) Of course, the ranking Republican and designated White House water carrier on the committee, John Warner of Virginia counseled caution and explained that Musharaf was “doing the best he can.” We shouldn’t disturb the general, president with too much overt criticism.

The Musharaf regime doesn’t take well to criticism. Witness the shutdown of critical Pakistani print and broadcast media, as they sought “to address the national crisis” of this past year. Witness the jailing of dissident political voices and the wholesale clearing of a troublesome judiciary that was willing to question the constitutionality of his recent election. Witness the mass arrests and official violence. As I said, they don’t take well to criticism

But, as yet, it has not been tactically feasible for Musharaf to shut down the New York Times.

A recent New York Times article reports the after more than six years and $10 billion in aid virtually no progress has been made in the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistani frontier. There is little doubt that the bulk of the funds have gone to other purposes. While raw paramilitary recruits cling to aging Kalashnikof rifles and ten rounds of ammo each, patrolling snowbound passes sandal clad and shivering, millions are spent on rocket defense systems obviously geared to counter weapons in India’s nuclear arsenal (yes, another of our allies). Billions more in American aid is scheduled to arrive over the next period of years, the years it is expected to take to properly train and equip the Pakistani forces currently deployed in The War on Terror. (Is it just me or do we always seem to “train and equip” forces that end up embarrassing us in the short term and haunting us in the long term?)

An unnamed Defense Department Official, a source for the New York Times article, sums it up this way: “I don’t forecast any noticeable impact. It’s pretty bleak.”

Time and time again, as the political crisis in Pakistan has unfolded we have been reminded that Pakistan is a nuclear power and that General ... er, President Pervez Musharaf is our dear dear friend. His brazen practice of strongman quasi-democracy has been openly condoned by American politicians on the one hand and —at best, timidly discouraged on the other. With opposition leaders in jail and the entire political culture in a “lock down” mode, President Bush famously opined that our ally had yet to “cross any lines” he was aware of. Hilary Clinton chided Obama for his remarks on Pakistan because, when running for president, what we say “might have consequences.”

The sad violence in Pakistan. Perhaps it really does say as much about us as it says about them. Just today I read a piece by conservative columnist James Zumwalt. He advised that we might not want to worry so much about Musharaf's foibles when it comes to democracy. We might want to look the other way, or as he put it “be very mindful into which corners of the globe we shine freedom’s beacon of light.”

The argument is an old one, and a cynical one: Democracy, it’s a great idea for the right people at the right time, but for dangerous societies like Pakistan’s of today something a little less than that will have to do. That is the calculation we make as we fear the prospect of an Islamic state with nuclear arms. We’ve made the same calculation about the liability of democracy too many times in our recent history. There have always been men with names like Marcos or Pinochet, Trujillo, Suharto, Diem, or even Saddam Hussein, men ready to broker our fears into power with our anxious and ultimately embarrassed support.

One of the things Benazir Bhutto was arguing for, as she campaigned for the upcoming elections, was a rejection of that false choice between security and freedom. She wanted to see beyond the spectacle of political violence and terrorism. She wanted that for her own people, but just as importantly she wanted the world to see this. She had pledged to confront the violent extremists, not to abide by them and she planned to do this with something much more effective than helicopter gunships or police state repression. She campaigned on the idea that the most effective weapon in the face of terrorism was the clear mandate of legitimate democracy. There are those who argue that her murder is evidence of her mistaken outlook. To my mind, they only take the crime one step further.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A question, lightly held

My favorite moment in the new film "The Golden Compass" comes as a quiet instance, one where the heroine, Lyra reveals to the band of 'Gyptian' rebels, who have just rescued her, the fact that she has come into possession of this magical instrument. One of their leaders, old Farder Coram is surprised to learn the instrument still exists. He knows of these devices. He thought he knew of them. Most others had been destroyed long ago. The young girl is still learning the instrument, what it does, how to use it.

It answers questions, the old man explains, but not narrow or ordinary questions requiring only dull and determinate answers. It answers the kind of questions one mightn't even know how to ask, the questions you must "hold lightly in your mind."

The questions you must "hold lightly in your mind."

Right then I remembered why I loved those novels. The books have no shortage of adventure story phantasmagoria (and neither does the movie). They are really quite compelling adventure stories. But the beauty of "The Dark Matters Trilogy" comes in those quieter instances, those lightly held questions.

There have been a few attempts to make "The Golden Compass" more fodder for the culture war. "Isn't that the movie that's against God?" my wife was asked as we packed up the kids for the multiplex. I've come across articles that were critical of the film's producers for soft-pedaling the supposed "atheistic subtext" of the story. For some this was out of some timid fear of controversy, for others this same softening represented some kind of skeptical Trojan Horse being secreted into the minds of our unsuspecting youth. I don't think either side holds the question very lightly.

The first movie makes its departures from the first novel. Events and characters disappear, others materialize. But, in fairness, for the most part these changes seemed genuine in an attempt to shape an ambitious and expansive novel into a concise movie-going experience. I didn't detect much loss of nerve, or subliminal messaging. I was left only wanting the next installment. On that score, the producers should be pleased.

But I didn't start writing this to try a movie review.

I started with that question. I'm not sure if it's still on my fingertips or if its fallen into my fist, but I started writing this wanting to crow a little for that question. I wanted to say that beautiful moment in a pretty good movie seemed like something of a victory —for questions, for curiosity. It wasn't a controversial statement, that question, "lightly held." It wasn't a battle line being drawn. It was just the opposite. It seemed like the kind of moment when both sides in an argument see the flaws in their own case, when the certainty of each fails, when combatants begin to imagine the possibility of peace. That moment, that question, for me, was about a beautiful human quality: seeking —so much more profound than anything we ever seem to find. Seeking, not a stubborn search to confirm what we already claim to know, but an honest, aching, courageous openness.

There's a passage I remember from the novel. Lyra has begun to understand what the compass is telling her. She has learned that this machine doesn't speak in literal language or logically constructed sentences. It speaks to, or more aptly, through something within. She tries to describe this understanding to her friend. She compares it to climbing a ladder in the dark, the way with some small courage we find the place of each rung ...before our feet actually touch them.

I've never read a better description of faith. I'm not talking about the faith of blind certainty or suspended disbelief, not the refusal to doubt or question, not even devotion, but rather I'm referring to the faith that proves itself, at least in my belief system, so much greater, so much larger and holy, so very much more human, that seeking faith —of hope, that reaching into the darkness, that brave climbing.

With that beautiful image of the ladder in the darkness, with the tender grace of an old man's advice to a young child about these questions, lightly held —what with these homages to what it is to be human, it's awfully hard, or perhaps far too easy, to argue that what we have in "The Golden Compass" is some story "against God." Philip Pullman's "Dark Matters" stories do challenge an understanding of God, or what is understood as Divine. These are stories of very human heroes coming into conflict with a rigid religiosity that assumes the place of God and opts to see what is holy as the denial of what is human.

I think I've heard of such stories before.*

"The Golden Compass" and each of "The Dark Matters" stories resolve with a crescendo of drama and action, just as adventure stories are supposed to. Who would settle for anything less? Especially at the multiplex? But give me those quieter moments at the story's beginning, the interludes of gorgeously laden conversation throughout, give me those questions, lightly held, those moments when what we understand of God or the Divine and what we know of being human seem to be echoes of the same music, ineffable qualities of the same light. Give me those questions. We know there are answers. We sense we might never find them. Still we try to understand.

*Oh yes, and by the way, a merry Christmas to all.



Sunday, December 16, 2007

two songs, the same "small and fallen flower"

A couple of songs come to mind as the year "closes on this coldest kind of season." Cheers (well, sort of). ~T.D.

Dance The Darkness

What am I to do? It seems I’ve fallen through
the hole I’ve tried to dance my life around.
And as I start to fall I hear your music call
and my head and heart are taken by the sound

to the lonely touch of footsteps on the road,
to the broken and surrendered,
to the wounds that won’t be mended,
to the heart that will not hear what its been told.

What am I to do, when I feel that I’ve found you
and I know I’ve lost what wisdom I once had?
Is my life a game of chance or this sweet and sorry dance
to the time of a tune so simple and so sad?

Come and dance with me the darkness, place your hand in mine
bring your gentle kiss to my lips and taste this bitter wine.
I can close my eyes—and you can hold me to your song.
We will dance our dance of sweet despair until the light of dawn,
until it shines.

And in the morning light I’ll be longing for the night,
for the shelter in the shadow of your eyes,
when you’ll come to me again like this simple song’s refrain
like the simple perfect pain we have taken for our prize

like the dreams of those who wander in the rain,
the sadness of your song,
this resignation at the dawn,
your hand upon my heart that still remains.

Can you tell me why I search the bluest sky
for the poison and the promise of the rain
or why I take your hand when I cannot understand
how this small and fallen flower has found me here again?

Come and dance with me the darkness, place your hand in mine.
Bring your gentle kiss to my lips and taste this bitter wine
I can close my eyes—and you can hold me to your song
we will dance our dance of sweet despair until the light of dawn,
until it shines.

For All The Wrong Reasons

Weren’t we two fine shining fools, climbing up the hill
with mountain dreams of life above the rain?
Offering up our prayers through starlight and thin air
never dreaming we would fall back down again.

Every day another page we could write,
sad songs and cigarettes with lonely souls we met,
hearts a fire burning through the night.

We were patriots in search of truth or treason.
And a song's sometimes a song for all the wrong reasons.

From our place above the city we watched the flowing light
and above our heads there turned a wheel of stars.
And this sad and soulless world was just a banner yet unfurled
as our talk turned to the majesty of scars

and how we could be the ones to bring a healing wind,
with our songs and stories, our laughter at glory.
We were two smiling saviours aching to begin

or two priests high on prayer and hungry for believin’.
And a song’s sometimes a song for all the wrong reasons.

Then came coffee cups and conversations, down on Concord Road.
Remember Gabriela dancing to our songs?
A small and fallen flower found lying on the ground
and opening in the place where it belongs.

We must admit it lasted for a while—
the promise of the light, through long and easy nights
and gray blue eyes that journeyed towards a smile

to where the saddest of souls could say goodbye to grievin’.
Ah, but a song’s sometimes a song for all the wrong reasons.

When the time does finally come to rewrite all our history
we can say we said the things we never said.
We’ll say we broke each other’s hearts for the sake of truth and art.
Wandering stars, we followed where they led.

We’ll say that paradise was just a place for leaving.
We’ll say that we have learned from the bridges we have burned
and how hope is something less than believing.

And how every year closes on this coldest kind of season.
And how a song’s sometimes a song for all the wrong reasons.

these songs are published in

available at

you can also listen at tom's myspace page

Friday, December 14, 2007

Together, how far?

no one said this would be easy

We are coming up upon a milestone for Deval Patrick. In just a few weeks we'll have had a full year of him in office, a year with which we might assess the man and this administration that was supposed to challenge the status quo and usher in a new era in engaged citizenship, this administration that really had billed itself as a revolution about to happen.

First, I should point out that I am, by no means, an impartial judge. I might be something of an apologist (but then again I could just as well be a 'voter scorned'!) I worked for Deval Patrick in every way I could with whatever time I could spare from the first time I heard him speak, at a Democratic issues convention in 2005. Right from the start, the thing that so impressed me about Deval Patrick was his ability to speak from a position principled conviction without resort to a divisive and dismissive politics. He was unapologetic and unequivocating in his positions on marriage rights, the death penalty and immigration. But he also saw these political battle lines as things to move beyond. He often reminded us that there were larger challenges we could all work together to face. Education, housing, economic growth, these were places where thoughtful policy could serve us far better than political posturing. Deval Patrick spoke of government as a mechanism for the kind of hope that doesn't sit back and wish for things, but rather the kind that sets about the task of making things happen.

"Yeah, he gives a good speech." I heard that a lot over the course of the campaign, through the primary and general election. There was always the implied question: how would this rhetoric translate into governance? And as this past year has unfolded the question has come up again. Was "Together We Can" only another slogan? What of the grassroots progressive movement that supposedly made Deval Patrick's campaign about a lot more than Deval Patrick?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Of Retroactive Warning Signs & Preemptive Strikes

News that the recent partial release of the National Intelligence Estimate includes the conclusion that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program sometime in 2003 has created quite a stir for the administration to sort out. Those brave hearted souls who actually try to chart the logic behind Bush administration policy have quite the challenge at hand. Actual administration officials and the media opinionators who guard their flanks have had to adopt some fairly circular logic, both to justify the saber rattling of the past few months (years actually) and the continued posture of entrenched contempt for, and confrontation with, Iran that they now cling to.

The fact that this fist waving at the menace of a nuclear Iran has been mistaken for a number of years and downright disingenuous for a period of months (since the administration was made aware of the NIE report sometime in August) seems of little concern in the post candor paradigm of the George W. Bush presidency. Daniel Froomkin of the Washington Post is credited with pinpointing the date as sometime in August, when the administration was at last compelled to acknowledge the NIE report. At about this point administration mouthings stopped referring to the actual constitution of weapons as a threat and our rhetorical gun-sights turned on Iran's "potential access" to "knowledge" or "capabilities" that might indicate or allow for mal-intent. The administration knew the NIE must ultimately come to at least partial light. This subtle retooling of the language was to allow Bush to maintain that precious sense of alarm, even in the face of some regrettably good news.

And that is exactly how the administration has treated the NIE report, as such regrettable good news: "(Alas), there is no credible evidence of an active program to develop Iranian nuclear arms." (OK, I added the "Alas", but that has been the basic tone: "Alas!") And Team Bush has mobilized to confront this good news crisis.

Former U.N. "diplomat" John Bolton, without the slightest crack of a smile at the irony, has advised that we shouldn't believe everything our intelligence agencies tell us. Defense Secretary Gates joined in with the comment "Iran remains a grave threat," and with a call upon Iran to explain its support for "funding and training" of Shia militia in Iraq. (Of course the Iraqi government has essentially funded, trained and employed the National Police as a Shia militia too, but for our defense secretary that's beside the point!)

President Bush himself has responded. He pointed out that he viewed the 2003 Iranian shutdown of its nuclear program "as a warning signal that they had the program!" (...huh?)

“They halted the program. And the reason why it’s a warning signal is that they could restart it.” (Again ...huh?)

“What changed was the change of leadership in Iran,” the president said at a press conference called to address the good news crisis. Referring to the elections in Iran in 2005, he observed “We had a diplomatic track going, and Ahmadinejad came along and took a different tone. And the Iranian people must understand that the tone and actions of their government are that which is isolating them.”

OK, maybe a timeline would help. The alleged arms program was shut down in 2003 (that is if you're gonna believe our intelligence!) You might recall that this was at just about the same time the U.S. was obliterating the Iraqi WMD menace with a massive "preemptive retaliation". History would ultimately prove that in Iraq, as well, we were actually attacking the retroactive warning signals of past weapons programs that the Iraqi regime may or may not have been thinking about developing a capacity for ...some time in the future.

Interestingly enough, some conservative pundits, such as Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, have pointed to the shutdown of the Iranian program as yet another aspect of the remarkable success of the Bush Iraqi adventure.

But wait a minute!

That was 2003 and, as President Bush pointed out, Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005.

(Count with your fingers if necessary.)

So the decision to have a weapons program and the decision to halt it, both occurred two years prior the evil doer Mahmoud ever entering office. Actually, both decisions would be attributable to the regime of President Mohammad Khatami, who was (and still is) widely well regarded in the West as a moderate reformer in Iranian politics. (That's the problem with retroactive warning signals, sometimes they don't follow the script.) The "diplomatic track" may or may not have been derailed by the neighboring occupation force of 150,000 American troops moving in next door (and staying), but however you want to read the entrails you can't connect the current Ahmadinejad regime with the arms program at issue. By our own accounting of the facts, Ahmadinejad has done only as he has said, expanded upon Iran's domestic nuclear power and challenged the notion of needing America's permission to do so.

In actuality Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran pose no threat to America or her interests with any form of arms capacity. What does stand as a challenge, and what is suddenly showing in rather stark light, is the frail logic of our policies. With regard to arms, with regard to the exercise of power, in the Mideast and around the world, what is being called into question in our confrontation with Iran is the generalized doctrine American exceptionalsim, "The Because We Said So" Doctrine.

Why is nuclear power a sovereign domestic concern for American politicians to discuss freely, yet something Iran must seek permission for? What empowers the U.S. to arbitrate the standing of nuclear nations, blessing for India what it would bomb in Iraq? Would America's ally Israel submit to the same monitoring conditions for its power plants now being demanded of Iran? These are the questions, this is the war of ideas Iran is waging right now. And that is one place where we should all worry about our own "weapons capacity."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Texas Sky

This song came to mind the other day. It's an old one, written about seven years ago, maybe eight. I was listening to the radio one morning and they were talking to the governor of Texas. He was asked if his avowed Christianity gave him any reason to pause or question the practice of capital punishment.

(He had set some records in the catagory.)

He said he'd searched his conscience...

and that he hadn't found anything.

Texas Sky

Huntsville, Texas, December or July,
the coldest place in all creation.
It's too windy there for candlelight
and protest songs won’t change the night
or the heart of this angry nation.
He’s dressed in prison clothes, we watch the man walk down,
his hands all bound up in chains.
With a needle in his arm he won’t do no one no harm.
Hell, we don’t even need to know his name.

Texas sky, Texas sky: cold and dark and high.
There’s another lonely star tonight up in the Texas sky
shining down on you and I.

The camera lights outside the prison walls
won’t shine when the crowd does go
or when the priest has prayed that some debt has been paid
to what the dead and the dark don’t know.
And with the darkness a woman stands alone,
blind with the tears in her eyes,
and to one lone star above she whispers of how her love
might have failed but won’t ever say goodbye.

Texas sky, Texas sky: cold and dark and high.
There’s another lonely star tonight up in the Texas sky
shining down on you and I.

Whats that I hear? Some politician talking proud
about the Bible that he’s read and what it means.
His dollar and his dime won't stand the test of time.
Yes, Pilate’s hands never did come clean.
They say that Jesus died between two thieves,
two cold,low and lowly men
and they say that Jesus said, “you do unto me,
just as you do unto them.”

Texas sky, Texas sky: cold and dark and high.
There’s another lonely star tonight up in the Texas sky
shining down on you and I.

this song is published in

available at

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Odor of Old Promises

Perhaps no one is really surprised. It might be that this country has finally lost its capacity for outrage, has long since surrendered the idea of reproach or redress when lied to. We have become the Orwellian farm animals who find it too troubling to remember the promises once posted on the stable wall.

Monday morning, November the 26th, at a closed door teleconference, our president signed an agreement, a "declaration of principles" with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. There are details to be worked out, but the basics are clear. Iraq’s al-Maliki led government will abide by one more year of coalition forces on Iraqi soil per the U.N. authorization that provides for their presence. They will support one more one year renewal of the resolution, which would have the mandate finally coming to a close sometime in late 2008. But this won’t see American soldiers coming home. The “U.S.-Iraq Declaration of Principles for Friendship and Cooperation” that our president signed sees to that.

The document affirms a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq long after the rest of the “Coalition of the Willing” has gone home. There may be welcome home parades in Mongolia and Estonia, but for American troops it will be business as usual for a long time to come... OK, actually the word is 'permanently.'

In a rather quiet press release on the president’s teleconference and agreement signing, the White House points out that U.S. troops will remain “to train and equip Iraqi Security Forces” (more than four years in and another year out we will apparently still be “training and equipping”). We will remain “to provide security assurances to the Iraqi Government” (presumably this is just in case those security forces won’t be all that effectively trained or equipped after all).

According to a statement by Prime Minister Maliki, Americans will remain “to deter any external aggression” and “defend against internal coup” (I guess that just about covers everything). Our troops will remain so as to “codify” our lasting “bilateral relationship” with a “democratic Iraq.”

(Roughly translated: we will remain as a permanent military presence in Iraq, Yes, that’s right: Permanent).

According to the Associated Press, Iraqi officials assume a detachment of about 50,000 U.S. troops would remain, perhaps in a series of bases well outside the major Iraqi cities (there are still details to work out). The Iraqi government would assume "greater control" of how these forces would be used.

Rest assured that the long term “strategic partnership” between Maliki’s embattled government and the U.S. is not without its rewards for American loyalty. Officials of the Iraqi government remind us that they are offering preferential treatment for American investment (All you boys and girls serving over seas, be sure to call your broker.)

What scant media attention the "declaration of principles" has received has been colored with the appropriate double-speak. Prime Minister Maliki has announced to his people that this new agreement signals an end to the occupation of Iraq. (Same troops, same mission, but we won't call it an 'occupation' anymore.)

Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President Bush's adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan explains it to us this way: “Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own; that's very good news, but it won't have to stand alone.”

(There, don’t you feel better?)

To quote one National Security Council staffer in a briefing on the "declaration of principles," soon, we will no longer occupy Iraq, but rather we will be engaged in a "normalized, bilateral relationship."

As I started to write this piece I was thinking of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ —of the pledges the animals all made to each other as they started on their idealistic adventure, how they posted them proudly at first up there on the stable wall. I thought of how the words could be forgotten, such that they could be so easily ultimately changed. Then the language itself faded, along with curiosity and concern.

Ignorance becomes a reward in itself, for those who choose to ignore.

Come on into this particular barn with me. There are still a couple of scraps pinned to the weathered plank. You can still just make out what they said:

"As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation and neither does America."
~President George W. Bush, April 13, 2004

"We do not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. Our goal is to help Iraq stand on its own feet, to be able to look after its own security, and to do what we can to help achieve that goal."
~then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, August 14, 2005

“We're not seeking permanent bases really pretty much anywhere in the world these days. We are, in fact, in the process of removing base structure from a lot of places.”
~Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, April 4, 2006.

Ah, well. The promises are faded now, forgotten. I suppose it’s best we move on.

It’s starting to smell in here anyway.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Immigration Problem (or is this about citizenship?)

I've been trying to make sense out of the immigration debate, as it's currently framed, for quite a while now. And, to borrow a phrase, "it's hard work."

I've been on hand a couple of times when people I know have taken up the subject and suddenly taken on an extreme and angry demeanor. People who I just know cheat on their taxes (a little), who disregard highway speed limits (almost always), and who most certainly "inhaled" in college (maybe even more recently) suddenly become law and order fundamentalists. "We are a nation of laws!" they proclaim.

I've heard this coming out of some of the most unlikely mouths.

Then there comes the righteous tax dollar argument: "Why should we pay for 'their' healthcare, housing, education, etc., etc.?" (As a citizen myself I start to wonder what I've been missing!) Once or twice I've tried to proffer the argument that maybe the problem isn't so much with immigration as it is actually with those issues: healthcare, housing, education, et cetera.

This argument rarely wins me any friends, or influences anybody. It only serves as a distraction and goes to diffuse the raised voice resentment (just when people were starting to enjoy themselves!)

Then from the other side of the room you get the practical pragmatist types and their side of the debate. They don't raise their voices as much as the law and order table pounders, theirs is more an attitude of abject sighing. "How are we supposed to come by affordable landscaping, fast food, child care and domestic help? We simply need a lower caste for modern American society to function!" As Karl Rove pointedly observed, as he was touting the Bush administration's immigration policy proposals this past year, we shouldn't expect his kid to come around mowing our lawns. He'll have none of that! "Those (immigrant) people, they're necessary." By some estimates there are 12 million of them. We don't need to think of them as potential citizens. They are our "workers"... we could call them "guests" perhaps.

So this is where we find the debate: How high and long should the wall be? How severely can we punish the supposed perpetrators of illegal immigration and still have them vacuum the family room? One man's "path towards legal status" becomes another man's anathema of "amnesty."

And suddenly I feel like I'm a twelve year old Red Sox fan again. I'm watching Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles play Billy Martin's New York Yankees and I'm wishing there was a way both sides could lose.

Now, I know better than that. There isn't a healthy way both sides of this debate can lose. Not healthy for the country. For now, neither is winning and perhaps both are losing. Reform legislation has been taken from the table and some sad amount of wall has been built, more an anemic and depressing symbol than any kind of effective barrier. Spastic and sporadic enforcement of our extant immigration statutes only serves to embarrass this "nation of laws" with its apparently arbitrary cruelty.

How then can we move beyond this, beyond those who jealously guard the privileges of citizenship and those who would offer citizenship in some sadly compromised form? I won't pretend to have worked out an answer to that question in terms of policy. But I would like to advance just a couple of thoughts, ways we might improve the debate and, by that means, maybe improve the result.

These issues it seems are constantly described in terms of being an "immigration problem." Citizenship, when it is discussed, is almost always conceived of as a set of social and economic privileges to be reserved for the deserving Americans. Hardly ever is citizenship in this country discussed as a form of civic responsibility, as a common commitment, as something that identifies who we are by virtue of what we share. I think we would all be well served if, citizens and immigrants alike, we were to to rearrange that set of understandings. Perhaps this debate shouldn't be about the "immigration problem" at all. Rather it should be about the challenges of citizenship.

What does it mean to be a citizen when the logic of our global policies have come home to live here around us? Beyond the privileges, what are our tasks as citizens in the American landscape and, yes, in the global village.

Perhaps we can divorce the ideas of charity and compassion from our understanding of an entitled citizenship. But should we altogether dispense with these as values as well? We are a nation that takes pride in the aid we offer to impoverished nations. Why then should we treat their citizens differently when they arrive here at our door?

Citizenship, understood as a blessing, and also a task, is it something to be guarded jealously? Or, just as any blessing and any task, is it actually best shared?

I know these are questions, not answers. And they might only get us more debate. But I'd like to think of them as a different lens, on a different debate, something more useful maybe. I can only hope so.

Friday, November 2, 2007

"the dark bright pity of being human"

I came across this video the other day. I watched it figuring it would be one of those fun little digestible nuggets you find in such abundance on the web, maybe it would be something funny or rabble-rousing, inspiring or preposterous. Surely, there would be some zinger at the end, the punchline, as they call it.

Then came the way this man described the weight of grief he carries with him wherever he goes, the way even the simple pleasure of watching a ball game is forever colored by his loss, the loss of his son. And then came his gratitude at the simple gift of being allowed to talk about it, that "brick" that he carries around.

Something in my own tears told me I couldn't just let this go by, this chance encounter in my internet wanderings. "Drug related death." That was all this heart broken man could manage when asked for more about his son. It was that "environment" that took him away. Pete was the boy's name. My first instinct was to latch on to this as a cautionary tale, to show it to my own son, who is 16, and my daughter, 13. As if to say to them, "See what's at stake! Please be safe! Please!"

Lately, I've often found myself just on the edge of having that heart to heart conversation, the one where you warn your kid about the temptations and the dangers out there. Every sitcom that makes light hearted fun of stoner humor, every pop song (especially my own old rock and roll classics), every image or idea that resonates with a drug induced understanding of 'chic' has me ready to climb up on my pulpit and sermonize. What "rush" could ever be worth this amount of grief, this weight, that brick? Tell me.

That was my first reaction, and I probably will show this to my children, but it occurs to me that there's something more going on in this three-minute video. This is more than an oblique public service announcement about the dangers of drug abuse. There's something to the story of this man wandering toward the ballpark, alone and with four tickets in his pocket.

You can't help noticing what a beautiful day it is, as this man speaks of his heart ache. It is one of those gorgeous late summer days. You can feel it on your skin. The shear physical joy of it, you just know that this is what reminds this man of his son, and what recalls his loss, what compels this conversation we find ourselves witnessing.

There is something beautiful at work here.

There is dignity in this man's grief, but more importantly there is an exhilarating awareness of his surviving connectivity with his son. He is aware of his loss, but also of something that can never be lost. Shrimp and french fries. Those ball games, their time together, the smell of sunlight. There is something here about what it means to be —just as Hamlet said it, simply to be, to live and die, with blessings and loss. This is what it means to experience what the novelist Alice Sebold, in 'The Lovely Bones,' describes as "the dark bright pity of being human." This is something beautiful.

We all of us have our darker habits and destructive instincts. I think the darkest and most destructive come when we try to pretend we are alone and distinct, separate. We fall to the dangerous illusion of a self apart, and away. So much young suffering happens on this account. Those older aren't immune either, but for some of them another knowledge begins to sink in.

Lives reach across. One thread passes another weaving. And for all the pain and grief and loss there is the promise of light, like the light as one man finds it, in ghostly company at an afternoon baseball game.

Yes, there is something beautiful at work here.

Friday, October 26, 2007


It’s going to be Halloween soon. And in the spirit of the season, The Republican National Committee has introduced a fun little interactive page on their website called “Scariest Democrat.” On the opening page, a picture of each of the Democratic candidates for president is shown. Each is captured with a menacing (or goofy) expression on their face. Along side each such image, our friends at The GOP National Committee display the results of some sort of polling activity where they’ve actually been trying to gauge who is, in their terms, the scariest. Also there next to each candidate’s “scary” visage is an interactive link where you can “click here to read why” Biden, or Clinton, or Obama is “the scariest Democrat.”

When you do proceed to the next “layer” you don’t get a whole lot of specifics as to “why John Edwards is so scary” —or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. The word “left” is used a lot. It would appear that all it takes to incite GOP fear and loathing is this word, or the word "liberal," or "progressive." America should recoil in horror because Joe Biden is “widely identified as a liberal!” Run for your lives! “John Edwards has staked out the clearest position on the left!” Tremble in fear, America, for Senator Chris Dodd “is proud of his Northeast Progressive background!”

Actual policy dispute with these labeled liberals isn’t actually made available. It doesn’t seem to be necessary. Dismissive tags will do.

The sources are quoted: Newsweek, NY Times, MSNBC, Tucker Carlson, etc. They even have one or two live links to the source name calling.

To complete the theme of the piece, this useful web based resource is displayed across the backdrop of a cartoon Halloween graveyard scene, complete with lightning flashes and the revolving sound loop of rolling thunder.

I realize that, on a certain level, this was meant to be taken in fun. But as I read the various elements of this web-based media piece, I couldn’t help but recall a host of examples where this fear and loathing theme has recurred in the political discourse of the past few years, and with a lot less tongue in cheek. On the national front, I thought of our fear mongering war culture. (Or is that a war mongering fear culture?) More locally —for now, I thought of Mitt Romney launching his presidential campaign with an actual explicit list of “bogeymen” in hand (“activist” judges, his “home” state of Massachusetts, the French, gays and, but of course, liberals and Democrats).

Yes, I was just getting ready to climb up on my soap box and decry the politics of fear, not just the fear of threats and challenges like poverty and security and peace, but also the fear to actively engage in informed discourse, the way “liberal” and “left” and “progressive” have been used as a terms to contain, label and dismiss valid debate.

I’d been to see Deval Patrick and Barack Obama speak at Boston Common only a few days ago and I was ready to take something from that experience. I was going to launch into an argument that we should premise our politics on what we hope for, rather than what we’re afraid of.

Then I got an email from the DSCC, The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They wanted to let me know that I can go to their website and watch a video they refer to as their “Halloween Howler.” There you can see stock footage from old B-grade horror movies interspersed with attacks on “vulnerable” Republican senators facing re-election in 2008. All this, over a soundtrack of vintage horror movie brass section honking and campy heroine-in-distress screams. You can log on to the site and vote for your “Scariest Republican.”

Oh, well. So much for elevating the civic discourse.

I'm told that we are in that phase of the electoral process for the presidency where we must constantly discuss our politics in terms of warring sides, or opposing camps. Each party looks to its base for support, and over its shoulder at “enemies,” so as to energize those respective bases.

But anyone who is actively engaged in politics these days will tell you, we’re always in that phase.

The analysts of what is known as “real politics” tell us that the machine matters. Who can out-fundraise and ultimately outspend their opponent? That becomes the question. They tell us that the game of politics involves savvy demographic maneuvers, more than civil democratic debate (with or without the capital “D”). To this mindset, both of these “scary” new media campaigns could end up being really quite successful.

”Bogeymen,” indeed.

To my mind, we find ourselves engaged in something that is, at the same time, as brutal as a war and as silly as a game, something that is ultimately sad, bewildering and just plain destructive to our democracy.

I’d like to believe we can do better than this. All of us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Dull Blade Of A Double Axe

Just a while back someone forwarded an email with a short opinion piece about Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The piece focused on some amount of controversy generated by remarks Howard had made in criticism of Islamic clerics, residing in Australia and advocating among their followers for the rule of Sharia law. Howard had pointed out that Australia was a secular state and that it's laws were made by Parliament. (OK...) Those who question that or suggest that "there are two laws governing people in Australia," that of the secular government and that of Sharia, those people "should consider leaving," Howard was quoted as saying.

Strangely enough, from there the author of this piece went on to congratulate Howard for an earlier interview in which he directly contradicted this reminder to the clerics about a secular state. In past public comments Howard had said he was "sick and tired" of the "politically correct" notion of a multi-cultural Australia. The country was founded by Christian and White men and women who speak English, claimed Howard. (I guess the indigenous Aboriginal culture had become invisible to him) "Learn the language!" he was quoted as saying and "If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture."

The piece concluded with these words from Australian Prime Minister John Howard; "This is our country, our land, and our lifestyle, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our Christian beliefs, or our way of life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, 'the right to leave'!"

Oh yes, and this coda, these words from the essay's anonymous author: "Maybe if we circulate this amongst ourselves, American citizens will find the backbone to start speaking and voicing the same truths."

The essay piece was anonymous. The email had been forwarded to me by someone, let's just say their political outlook is somewhat different from mine, with only this comment: "America needs a leader like this."

I know I've set up something of a straw man here, but really! America needs a leader like this?

The thinking is a little like a dull double bladed axe. It's a little like hitting yourself in the face with one. It takes a challenging question that confronts us as a nation, and as members of a larger democratic culture, and it turns it back on ourselves, as a tool to sever us (somewhat bluntly and brutally) into supposed camps.

The kind of extremists who advocate an absolute and extreme reading of Sharia, do so because they view democratic principles like an individual's civil liberties, or a culture of tolerance and pluralism, as decadent and morally compromised. They see their truth as an absolute and anything that questions or undermines it as simply an obstacle evil to be removed. I read this article and I found myself wondering whether the author rejected such thinking or embraced it.

I can't speak with any real expertise about Australian democracy (they lose me when they start pledging allegiance to their queen). But I do have an understanding (perhaps it's just my own) of American democracy. As I take it, central to that democracy, from its very founding, was a libertarian ideal that held that the state had no business anywhere between a human being and his or her god (or goddess, any such divinity). That's why we made it explicit in the earliest charter of this country that we would have no church of the state.

We considered and opted not to adopt an official language at about the same time (that's lucky too, a strong contender at the time was German, ümlaüt's and all).

I think it's fairly safe to say that a majority of those who put in place our Constitution and signed our Declaration of Independence were Christians. But they understood democracy as something more than plurality. And they saw the sacred as a concern for the individual conscience, not the consensus of a committee, no matter how large or well intentioned that committee might be. The individual conscience, with its own freely chosen concept of Creation, outside the coercive authority of government, even a democratic one: They saw this as the core truth in their understanding of freedom. In my estimation, they got that one right.

So what is a pluralist, tolerant, democratic society to do when one group within that society advocates an opposed way of thinking? It might feel good to pretend that the answer is easy and obvious, but that doesn't make it right.

If we're going to answer that question honestly, as Americans, if we're going to face that challenge to our principles (rather than surrender those principles), aren’t we supposed to figure out how to abide by a place for those differing beliefs? 'Tolerance' doesn't mean acquiescence, not to violence, not to oppression, not to hatred. But it does require faith and some amount of courage.

When I was a kid my father read a newspaper story to me about an ACLU lawyer, a Jew, who went to court defending the rights of a group of American neo-fascists to march in some small town parade. This group wore armbands with swastikas on them. That lawyer won that group their right to march in a parade and advocate their hateful ideas. He did so because of his own ideas, his very American, democratic ideals. That lawyer knew that those ideals were sometimes contradictory, and difficult, even dangerous. But they were what he believed in.

"Now, there's an American!" my dad said. As my father explained it, that particular American saw a far greater threat in actually abridging our freedoms, than in tolerating the free (albeit abhorrent) speech of a few ignorant bigots. I didn't always agree with my father, but in my estimation, he got that one right.

I don't think this a question about liberals versus conservatives. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend it is. The dull blade of that double axe hits us square in the face. A pluralist, tolerant, democratic society isn't some "politically correct" notion at odds with our founding principles. It is actually one of those principles. We do allow for people to choose their own "higher" laws, within the more purposefully liberal and limited precepts of our government's laws. Catholic catechism, Kosher orthodoxy, Sharia, Buddhist practice: these all contain laws and disciplines worthy of respect and honor in the hearts of those who choose them as their faith. In the democratic spirit, these faiths find even greater meaning in the fact they are chosen, freely.

There is a delicate balance here, one that is constantly challenged, one that gives rise to contentious debate. It is difficult, dangerous and gray at times. That is democracy.

Personally, I still have faith in the ideals of freedom and democracy, in social justice, human dignity. And I think our strongest weapon against ideological hatred, intolerance and violence is our capacity to maintain the integrity of those ideals. When we try to circumscribe those ideals and define them in limited terms, as the cultural property of one race or creed, we end up the ones doing them damage.

With that double axe in hand, we had best be careful. I guess that's all I'm asking.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Remarkable Enterprise

The Associated Press reports that our new Defense Secretary Robert Gates is really quite bothered. The Chinese just closed a deal with the Iraqi government for $100 million worth of military equipment. According to Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, he simply had to purchase the weaponry in question from the Chinese because American manufacturers weren't delivering product in a timely way. The Iraqi National Police needed munitions and they needed them now.

At this news, the Pentagon voiced some appropriate concerns. Foreign arms flowing into Iraq, even to the government's military and police, might be "harder to track" and just might fall into the hands of insurgents. Of course, at the Pentagon, they know that of which they speak, having themselves "misplaced" approximately 190,000 AK-47 rifles somewhere in Iraq over just the past little while.

Just imagine where those Chinese guns could end up!

But actually Secretary Gates said rather confidently that he is "not worried." He claims he's not all that bothered that Iraq is turning to the Chinese for weapons. He can still cite that the US has already delivered on about $600 million worth of product. There's somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion more on order. Business is good.

But it could always be better.

"This is an issue that we have to look into and see what we can do in the United States to be more responsive and be able to react more quickly to the requests of our friends," the Secretary said. According to the Defense Department, it generally takes us about five months to deliver our product to the (excuse the term) "marketplace" once we receive a detailed order. But we are working to improve upon that. Gates points out that we've opened up offices in Baghdad for "military sales." With improved customer service, the US hopes to "get (customer) requirements more quickly and get them processed more quickly." We can all rest assured the The Pentagon and The Defense Security Cooperation Agency have been working on this problem for quite some time.

It's maybe a little strange, the way Secretary Gates uses the word "friends."

He might have consulted his star general before making his marketing and sales analysis. It might have been worth noting that our recently reported "successes" in Anbar province involved the US directly arming local Sunni tribal elements. According to General Petraeus, these former insurgents and Ba'athists were able to turn on al Qaeda with our support and drive “the enemy” from the region.

Remember? It was on the news.

At the same time, these Sunni tribesmen were also able to assume local control of Anbar province, in direct opposition to the militant Shia factions operating from within, yes... The Iraqi National Police. (Yes, that's right, the same folks who were looking for quick turnaround on their weoponry needs.)

I am reminded that one of the great "think tank" sources for rationale for this war was (and continues to be) "The American Enterprise Institute." We are, after all, supposedly in Iraq to "defend" the principles of "American freedom and democratic capitalism." When you analyze this war in terms of marketing and sales, in terms of a bottom dollar bottom line, I suppose one can conceive of it as an enterprise, one beset by challenges, but ultimately, as our vice-president once said, "a remarkable success."

I am also reminded of a conversation I once had with another American, a businessman in fact, and an immigrant from Iran. We were talking about the way our country is perceived, around the Arab world, in Iraq and Iran. There was that question, why are we so resented? Think back to 1980's, he said. While Donald Rumsfeld was hugging Saddam Husssein at photo ops and offering support to the Iraqi military, Colonel Oliver North, from his White House basement office, was trading arms with Iran. Sit with that a while, he said, a war of ten years, that took a million lives. And we were arming both sides.

Sit with that a while.

A war conceived of as an enterprise can indeed be really quite remarkable. Today we arm Sunnis, whose allegiance was once to the regime we obliterated. We do this so as to hold in check the Shia who, it seems only yesterday we were liberating. We fund and arm both the central government and separatist factions. And our Secretary of Defense concerns himself with lost business opportunities.

Viewed through such a lens, the casualties, Iraqi combatants and civilians alike, our own soldiers, all become nothing more than the cost of doing business.



sadly, I'm not making any of this up... read the ap story

Monday, September 17, 2007

Solomon's Sword: As If This Was The Choice

There's that famous story in the bible where two women are disputing custody of an infant child. They take their case to King Solomon and he offers them a compromise. Alright ladies, let's just cut the kid in half and you can each have your share. A sword is drawn. And then one woman beseeches the king to stop and allows the other woman the child. The wise king sees the sword put aside and awards the child to this woman. It's plain to him this is the true mother, someone who places the child's survival above her own jealous interests.

Lately I get this feeling: sometimes I feel like that king watching the two jealous women, sometimes I feel like the baby. More aptly, I feel my country is that helpless child, our soldiers serving overseas and their loved ones here at home hoping, they are that child too.

I think back to about a year ago. The horrible curvature of Iraq's spiraling violence was already evident and opposition to an open ended US involvement had become a central issue for this country. "Stay the course" had run dry as the Bush administration mantra for the war. It was no longer just dismissible "peace-nick liberals" opposing the bloodshed in Iraq. A profound majority of Americans were calling for an end to this war.

There was rumor of this Iraq Study Group that was about to release its findings. This group would offer up solutions for what everyone agreed was a problem.(Well, everyone except Dick Cheney thought it was a problem. He argued at the time that Iraq was really a "remarkable success!") Oddly enough for a purported democracy it had been agreed that the Iraq Study Group's bipartisan commission wouldn't release its report until after the November elections(the idea was "not to make it political"). There would be reasoned analysis of the problem and sound recommendations as to policy, but only after the public voted.

The President may have considered his "accountability moment" behind him, but it was very much at hand for the Congress. The primary and general elections of 2006 were quite simply a referendum on the Iraq debacle. The debate was had. Despite some late and desperate party establishment efforts to shelter their "moderates" like Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, yes, even despite themselves, Democrats retook the House and Senate unarguably on their appeal to this country's desire to see an end to this war.

That was November 2006.

Then came The ISG or "Baker Commission" report. At last they issued their findings and, together with the election results, the mandate was clear: engage in real diplomacy (i.e.: talk to everyone, even people we don't like), exact real compromise from the warring Iraqi factions and demand measurable progress from their government, rehabilitate the former Ba'athists and let's make Iraqi civil order an Iraqi responsibility. Continued American involvement must be conditionally premised on Iraqi progress towards these goals. This message was unmistakable. And one more aspect of the message was really quite clear: we should begin to bring our sons and daughters home.

That's where we began 2007. We know where it went from there. Our president thanked "Jimmy" Baker for his report and set about the exact opposite in terms of policy. The "surge" has taken us to a place where we are now told we can only hope to withdraw enough troops in the next few months to be back, sometime in 2008, where we were in late 2006. (there's hope, no promises though.) The President openly saber rattles towards Syria and Iran so as to mock the very idea of diplomacy. And every effort by Congress to counter the administration's unilateral policy has been painted and framed as something somehow endangering our troops in harm's way. Congress can only cut the purse strings, we are told, they can't tell the commander-in-chief what to do.

As if there was only one choice to make: either sever the child or surrender him up.

In the current national discourse it is unimaginable to consider another possibility, that the president and his administration, his advisors and staff, that he and his generals might accept the American people's mandate for peace.

Now we are told what the generals think we need for a "successful mission" in Iraq. We aren't even offered any particular assurance that this mission will make our country safer or stronger. "I don't know," General Petraeus said when he was asked by a Congressional Committee.

Are we as a nation served by immersing our soldiers in all this faceted factional bloodshed? "I don't know," that's what he said: "I don't know."

As for the progress of Iraqi reconciliation and reform, the answer from Ambassador Crocker was, in essence, "don't ask."

With this Congress is pressured for the next payment on the Iraqi installment plan: $50 billion in cash just for now and an unspecified number of lives, for just as long as it takes.

I count myself among those who have become frustrated with the slow and seemingly timid progress towards peace, with the way a clear mandate has been muted and all but ignored. I don't want to be this angry. I want to understand. I don't want this rage for the sake of peace.

I suppose I think of that story of Solomon's sword about to sever the child in half because we have been presented with a similar supposed choice for so long. But we haven't the blessing of a solemn judge with an eye for absurdity. No Solomon, no such wisdom. Instead we have those who have placed our soldiers into such jeopardy using the threat of their own dangerous obstenance to leverage more bleeding. Of all the characters in that ancient story, what we seem to have on our hands is the woman who would have watched as the child was cut in two.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Whisper, a prayer

There are times when you can see jet airliners way up high above my house. It has to be a clear day, they're flying at a quite an altitude. You have to look for them. They seem to be moving slowly and silently. The way the light glints off their wings and fuselage, they can be really quite beautiful.

It was just such a beautiful day six years ago. I remember that gorgeous September day. I think it was a Tuesday and the kids were off to school. I was very much enthralled with the idea of myself as a singer/songwriter at the time.

I had just put the final touches on a song I'd written and I was wrestling my way through a rendition on my 12 string, sitting in the back yard. (I never did do justice by that guitar - I would eventually sell it.) I distinctly remember the sight of one of those rarely noticed, beautiful, slow, silent jet airplanes overhead - it was heading south, perhaps southwest, for New York or maybe D.C., I assumed, coming out of Boston.

The song I'd written was this enormously earnest, and somewhat overlong, ballad called "Whisper." I think I was trying to write a peace anthem. At the time the Intifada was raging in the streets of Palestine, and every effort to quell the violence seemed to only make it worse.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Accords seemed to be, at best, a precarious hope, with old angry men and younger dangerous ones still shaking their fists over timeless 'Troubles.' Recent history in places like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda hung heavy on my mind as well. I wondered if we humans would ever find the ability to live in peace.

On a beautiful day (such as that day in September, six years ago) the world could seem to be offering us peace, like some quiet and simple instruction we only needed to accept. Why can't we hear that whisper? That was the idea anyway. Perhaps I preached a bit much in that song, but that seemed like something worth doing just then. I was proud of myself for using a D-Minor 7th chord in the progression.

That beautiful clear blue morning, as I strummed and sang in the backyard by the white flowered hydrangea, my wife called me inside to the phone. My mother was on the line. Have you been watching TV? There's been an accident in New York. A plane hit one of the Twin Towers.

As my mother told me what she knew, I assumed that it was a small plane, that this would be one of those small, sad tragedies that occupies the news without really touching us. There would be plenty about it in the papers, probably for a week or more, no need to turn on the TV.

No, this was something more, my mother said. As if only to humor her, I turned on the news. To this day I'm not sure (it was so confused at that moment), but I believe I was watching live as the second plane hit the second tower.

In the song I'd written I was trying to come to terms with the idea of peace, or rather, the lack of it. There was a line in there about forgiveness as an unspent coinage, one we were being asked to give, let alone spend. And there was another line about rage as an empty pavement for empty streets.

As I said, I was preaching.

There was a verse where I imagined a Christ-like figure arriving upon the scene of some safe suburban modern day American town; Christ with his message of even suffering forgiveness. How would he be received? As I think of it now, I suppose for all I was trying to write a song, I was also trying to utter a prayer.

At different times over the past six years I've had different opinions of that song I'd just finished writing that morning in September. Sometimes I think of it as a beautiful earnest offering, at others it strikes me as pompous and preachy, maybe even naive. The last time someone asked me to perform it I shrugged it away and begged off. I probably couldn't play it right now if I tried.

Still, as I realized the date was coming round again, and as I thought of the way that tragedy has fallen into cynical use, as the ever more tortured justification for ever more fruitless violence, I thought of that song, that light of a beautiful September day, the message that light seemed to convey.

So quiet, almost whispered, a prayer.

This piece appeared in Metrowest Daily News
September 11, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Heaven and Feast Of All Souls

two poems for my father


when he dared to speak of heaven
he used to like to imagine that it was an answer.
just possibly one great answer
or just possibly thousands
upon thousands
each to all mankind’s beseeching

and this world —the mistaken hope
—the pain inflicted even by care —this world
—was his theory of hell.

you listened as he waited and worried it past
the sharp lipped cup flavoring the sweet liquor with blood.
you took that drink with him
and you breathed in together the heavy pale smoke.
you saw the photographs of his journey
and again heard the sorry ballad
born of the dew-wilted flowers of Irish ruin.
and you were there as he prepared
his self-soul for its final travel,
purging the scarred laughter
of his ultimate song.

you once thought you understood.

and in your argument it appeared
that heaven
was not an answer but the beautiful quiet
of song
of aching
of asking.

feast of all souls

—and for a moment I do sense
your presence and as I had hoped it seems
you have found some nourishing peace

though, through my own disquiet, I know
you have not been completely healed
—this aching —the hunger I would share
with my own son —these aspects of your still suffering

I lift an empty cup to these questions
still posed through our communion
to these things you gave to me which I had mistaken
for poorly chosen gifts

these were not things for me to discard
you gave them for me to carry.

These poems appear in

available at

No Silence

I have emptied the silence —taken it
from my mouth —from that long song shadowed place
in beside my heart —from the colorless place behind my eyes.
I have emptied it from the bare stones I had gathered and arranged—
from the green leaves I had allowed to wither.

I have travelled the streets of abandoned logic “one last time.’
I have tasted the token smoke and bid farewell.
I have visited the grave and remembered my father’s expired voice
—speaking his penitent name and listening for what he never said
I have emptied that silence —that sentimental spree has come to a close.

And friends, I will not offer my own silence —I cannot.

It has been replaced in me —I am left with this on my tongue.
Ash or earth —each word displaces the next to call
and utterly transform my language.

I am changed to become something like the lowest
—perfect soils that allow water to pass through
that make a place for seed and offer sweet sheltered stillness.
—I will not mistake that quiet for silence
what is given to flower in the light.
These colors —my children —this song:

I am joined to the resonant host.

This poem appears in

available at

George Bush's Cross Eyed History

George Bush's latest assault on logic in defense of his misadventure in Iraq came in a speech to the VFW this week. With a supposedly historical perspective, the president cited analogies with our country's military conflict with Japan and its subsequent reconstruction as a democracy, with our involvement in Korea, and even with the war in Vietnam.

Of course, as he drew his comparison with Korea and Japan, he neglected to point out that we had been attacked by Japan, that the South Koreans had been invaded by North Korea. He neglected to point out that, in the case of Iraq, we were the unprovoked assailants, we were the invaders. The president still chooses to blur this particular fact with oblique and opaque allusions that connect Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. This, though he has acknowledged (when pressed) that no connection has ever been proven to exist between Hussein's Iraq and the al Qaeda attacks of 2001.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of Bush's cartoon history of American militarism is his perversion of the facts in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In the past the president has spoken out of opposing sides of his mouth at the same time: In one breath, praise for trade agreements and WTO membership for Vietnam (for the same regime we spent 50,000 American lives opposing); and in the next, saying our only major mistake in Vietnam was that we "quit too soon."

This week he attained a new low. Bush cites the horrors of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge "killing fields" as the kind of thing we can expect in Iraq if we leave now, as we left Vietnam in the 1970's. He attributes that genocidal catastrophe to those same vaguely defined "forces against freedom" we fought throughout Southeast Asia.

Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn, but not the deluded fables the president would concoct.

Our commander in chief would do well to remember that the Khmer Rouge rose to power in a Cambodia that had tried to remain uninvolved in the Vietnam War, that had found itself in coup induced political chaos, showered in secret bombings and ultimately invaded by U.S. troops. Eventually a puppet dictator fell and Pol Pot came to power and set about a program of "re-education" for the Cambodian people. This supposed education combined ethnic cleansing with ideological fervor to render one of the most devastating genocidal episodes in human history. It was the unified Vietnamese who ultimately challenged the Khmer Rouge, invading and deposing the regime, and unearthing "the killing fields."

Our legacy in the region would be colored by the fact that U.S. Special Forces and the Thai military with our backing would choose to provide support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as they retreated into the hinterlands after being routed by the Vietnamese. We would oppose the new Vietnamese backed regime as they sought representation in the United Nations. We would insist that the Khmer Rouge delegate more legitimately represented the Cambodian people. We saw this as a strategic move against Vietnam as it aligned with the Soviet Union at the time. With our tacit approval our "strategic friends" in China would punish the new Vietnamese regime for its actions in Cambodia with military strikes along their border.

Yes, a thorough reading of history would serve us all well as we consider our calamity in Iraq. We might have learned by now that galvanizing disparate threats into a common enemy and lensing all conflict through ideology only renders our actions blunt, brutal and ultimately regrettable. But the reading our president proposes isn't one that draws such lessons from the past. Rather he offers up ever more simplistic fables and vapid mythology: The stuff wars are made of... they almost always have been.


Three stars
as the sky has begun
so differently
—the shadow logic dissolving
and blue, eye-like, light opens
upon the surface,
the smooth
of the sky.

The morning does not break —it becomes
whole before us.
And those three stars
remaining, if only
with us.

Three sea birds, songless above the unquiet
gesture at the shore: that not caress,
not punishment either. A sculptor’s
distracted hand at his creation. Yes, this fact
of absurd patience, the wisdom of sand, the silence

—so we would dream
of those birds, in place on the wind
and witness
to the ruinous grace.

This is what holds us here, these
three distant storms of light,
three silently hungering spirits,
these three needy castings of the heart—
and these three such syllables
of 'Trinity' spoken and taken to their meaning
with our listening to them.

Each of these, seconds —sands, so delicately balanced
and about to fall.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

There Are Too Many

This past Monday morning I drove my son to school as I often do. At that hour our conversation is seldom much more than pleasantries: favorite gags from last night’s episode of the Simpsons, small talk about the coming day’s school work and activities, maybe a peptalk about Algebra.This past Monday morning even the lightest of conversation was a little harder to carry off. Each telephone pole between home and my son’s school was marked with a sign bearing the name of a soldier. This coming weekend is Memorial Day and every year in my home town of Holliston these very simple shrines are put up along the major streets in town.

The name, the state that a soldier called home, the age that soldier was on the day he died, the flag of his country stapled to the pole —these are put in place as a tribute, as a memorial, as a reminder.

There isn’t a particular political point of view to these displays. These memorials have gone up twice a year, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. In the first year they stretched a few miles along the main route through town. By last year they had reached from one end of town to another and reached in several other directions along sidestreets and country roads. This year for the first time not every soldier will have his or her name displayed.

There are too many.

You read the ages and the names from these roadside signs and you imagine the faces and the families touched by tragedy. You think of the many parents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, loved ones and best friends. You think of the waves of loss travelling out from each name. You try to imagine the pain you would feel as you count on one hand the difference in age between a dead young soldier from Texas and your own son riding in the seat beside you. You think of your mother’s own worry and prayer and your own brother’s brave pride as he readies himself for an overseas deployment with The National Guard. You think of every argument you’ve had against these on-going wars, of your rage at the way it seems some would prefer not to question or dwell upon thebloodshed. You think of the anger that has come to rise even from pleas for peace.

Your heart aches.

These memorial shrines are attached to telephone poles, generally, and as such they appear every thirty or forty feet along the side of the road. There is something solemn and fitting in this —even beautiful. There is something of the slow and persistent cadence of a procession brought to mind, even as you drive along on an empty errand or take your child to one appointment or another. That cadence enters your thoughts without your even knowing it. It enters your heart.

There is a slight incline along Hollis Street as you approach Holliston High School. And until you reach the crest of this slope you don’t see the school. Across from the front door of the building is an open pasture, only a couple of acres of grazing land. Along one side of the pasture there is a little side road where the kids who smoke all gather before school. This field is fenced off from the road by chickenwire strung between treated posts. These posts are spaced every six feet or so.

This past Monday morning every one of the posts along that pasture and across from the school was flying a flag in the wind. Every post bore a dead soldier’s name and age. As we came to the crest of the hill my son and I saw all those flags together.

That slow cadence of the other memorials changed to something more powerful and urgent and tragic.

We had been listening to a cd on the car stereo: Neil Young’s latest recording, a collection of protest music, some of it quite angry. There was a song playing just then that said something about “the flags of freedom flying.” That particular song was less angry. More simply it expressed a bewildered pain.

We turned into the parking lot and I dropped off my son like I’ve done a hundred times before. There was a part of me that was glad every kid showing up to school that day was going to see those flags, every teacher, and every parent dropping off their teenaged child. That part of me wanted to explain something to my son before he headed off to classes. It wanted to define what we saw and say what it meant. It wanted to have an answer to the question “what then are we to do?” But that part of me couldn’t come up with words just then. We hardly said a thing to each other as he climbed out of the car and walked away.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that might be right. This Monday morning I sensed what an image can say once it has entered deep inside you, what the image of all those flags and all those names can say, something much more profound than a thousand words of argument or anger, something like a simple prayer for peace.

Originally published
MetroWest Daily News Memorial Day, 2006

fifteen haiku


breath in the water,
notion of sleep, eternal,


two spirits, dark eyed,
and asking, by the roadside
you can heed neither


take the broken earth
sift the soil through wounded hands
you feel them healing


flower beholding you
the petals grow large and near
infinite and small


the hero images
thumbtacks and adhesive tape
hold them to the wall


the root —below —deep
—flowering toward darkness,
blossom breathing light.


words words words spoken
without a thought for meaning
an unending sea.


...each leaf a notion
of the dark dreaming within
each wakening seed...


ink on parchment fades
roads lose their destination
watch the drifting star


beneath clear water
the soft bed of the slow stream
stone and sand forming


insistent sleep clouds
shadowing the blue sky mind
it's so hard to wake


try to whisper—heart
be still—do not ask for breath—
only for this light!


the eye cannot see
history, not days or hours,
there is only this.


light across the tongue—
mind reaching toward the heart—
such sweet poetry


fifteen haiku— yes—
a strange gift— but then again
all poems are love poems

Notes On An Opening Scene

It would begin with a dark screen
and the faintest distant
scratched plastic phonograph music
spinning absently afar. The void screen
then maybe —a guitar. Muddy Waters
chiming in that everything
everything, everything is gonna be alright
But before the wild stomp of ‘Mannish Boy’
kicks in, the fade.
Back into that black.
Hold it for a second too long
—then give me the colorless light.
The shock of white after so much darkness:
a woman’s face —only a glimpse—
disheveled hair
—Is she beautiful?
We shouldn’t know just yet.
Please have her hair wild and dry,
singular bright strands arching through the ink black
like sparks on slow film.
Her voice will have that music of the guitar
the same strained single note, bending.
She speaks of the story —she doesn’t
tell it. There is the mistaken
assumption that we already know
and understand.
Her complaint —her brave forgiveness
and generous pity.
Her sorrow.

The film is slow and dark, the light
is harsh and weak
like a coward’s judgement.
It shouldn’t matter who she forgives or graces,
who she chooses for the catastrophe of her heart.

We won’t play any favorites in this game.
Another fade before this becomes about her.

Cut to his hands, trembling as they appear,
as they lift the needle arm back to its rest.
Stay with the hands —shaking as he lifts them to his face.
We are his eyes
searching to steady those hands as they reach
as he moves through the soft focus space
to light the greasy stove flame.
Blue flame eruption.
He staggers and turns.
Maybe this is the first real color
—the only one.

I once had words for him—I described him
in philosophical terms, having borrowed
what I could from the dust jackets
of denser texts —contemporary aesthetic theory
and the current paradigm.
He fumbled his way through the deconstructed
architecture. And I faked my way
through faux Kundera and loitering naked warfare
—with nudity. Pages and pages —

That was another set of lenses.
These instructions are for another purpose.

Not a fade this time—nothing so obvious
and only as naked. There are the same occluded
views. Beautiful. Obsene. Absurd.

The pornographer’s confession.
The tyrant’s self pity. The soft
utterly colorless light
—a new breast, her vacant stare.
Blurred white
covering her face.
Rumble and hum of an over-amplified
bass guitar.
song lyrics out of place.

Suddenly silence. No
the kettle scream —comforts in one way
and rages mercilessly in another.
His fingers trace the edge of a smooth plastic counter
—a matchbook cover folded back behind
the one light remaining and torn cardboard strands.
Rain mottled soot
on a window pane.

The screen goes white. It is not silence.
The same music is playing but it is changed somehow.

The camara finds, then loses focus, then
again, and again —that struggle to see
some perfect surface —skin, the sky
or perhaps a veil that only moves
at the first touch of breath
—at the very last.

Seven Songs, a collection

these are seven songs of mine.
I thought of them together recently.
there are some you can hear if you look me up on i-tunes
but you might sing them better yourself
so here:


the things you tried to give to me
I won’t need them where I’m going
the things you tried to teach to me
there won’t be no use there in my knowing
I’m just tired of all this talk about trying
and all oh how useful life can be
when I see one lonely bird up there flying
I start to wonder if there’s a place for me

no better name for where I’m bound
there’s nothing I can claim that I have found
but there’s nothing you could ever sing or say to make me stay
no better name for where I’m bound
but away

we both believed this was a healing place
a place for me to lay my burden down
but deep inside we both found this empty place
just as empty as the streets of this town
you just don’t know what burns inside of me
and I might not know what lives inside of you
weren’t we both fools for what we tried to be?
the lies we told dreaming they’d come true

and you can keep the change
and you can keep the choices
this dream we both thought was ours
‘cause I won’t see your eyes and I won’t hear the voices
telling me to stay and hide these scars

no better name for where I’m bound
there’s nothing I can claim that I have found
but there’s nothing you could ever sing or say to make me stay
no better name for where I’m bound
but away

Midnight Soldier

I don’t want your sympathy for what I’ve been through
I don’t want forgiveness for what I’ve had to do
your charity is a curse on me I try to rearrange
a heart just like a purse i see, you can keep the change

you don’t know the midnight soldier
you don’t even know a thing about his war
or the battle in his brain that sends him walking in the rain
while you just dim the light and close the door

you don’t need to close your eyes or turn your face away
you don’t need to listen to a single word I say
I will be your soldier, I’ll be gone and I’ll be brave
my name can mark your memory like a stone that marks a grave

you don’t know the midnight soldier
you don’t even know a thing about his war
or the battle in his brain that sends him walking in the rain
while you just dim the light and close the door

you rest your head and dream your dreams as if I was not there
I will watch the night and bear the load that marks a soldier’s care
let the tired stars all fall on me in the shadows of this day
in the echoes of the songs not sung, the words you will not say

I sleep in the day time now in the ashes of our bed
after burning through the night and these things inside my head
the morning light might shine upon a simple broken cup
but it won’t mend and it won’t fill and you won’t lift it up

you don’t know the midnight soldier
you don’t even know a thing about his war
or the battle in his brain that sends him walking in the rain
while you just dim the light and close the door

Falling Down, Standing Up

everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
and you are one of mine

the walls have got a brand new coat of paint
the ceiling starts to fall
the things I tried to say to you last night
I know they make no sense at all

the flower falls into the bottle throat
green glass liquor long ago
drunk on dreamsongs and talk of tender hope
and high on how these seemed to glow

falling down, standing up
you leave some things behind
coffee stain lines on an empty cup
turning circles through my mind
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
and you are one of mine

isn’t this the song I sang for you before
remember paradise before the fall
while the sorry soldier sleeping just outside your door
lies dark and dreaming of your call

but winter chose to stay another day
so you can sleep or just pretend
while the sad survivor finds another way
one wrinkled dollar left to spend

falling down, standing up
you leave some things behind
coffee stain lines on an empty cup
turning circles through my mind
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
and you are one of mine

Are You Still Sleeping?

are you still sleeping my darling?
are you still wrapped up in your dreams?
you know tonight there’s a light that the stars bring
that says exactly what it means

it does not shine with prayers or promises
of what it hopes to do some day
it will not hurt you in the ways it tries to hold you
it will not choose to turn away

it tells me not to hope for heaven
while I’m lying next to you
it feels your breath dancing lightly on my skin
and paints your face in shades of blue

I don’t know where I’ve been until now
and I don’t know where I’ll go
I just know that I’m with you right now
I just know

I know that I have tried to hold you
like tommorrow was a thief
I’ve tried to hide my heart from what I told you
and this has only brought us grief

but in this light my love I see you
you are here and so am I
every second burning bright inside my heart
like these stars from in the sky

I know that I would be forgiven
for every foolish things I’ve done
if you would wake and see the way this blessing’s given
to love’s foolish fallen son

I don’t know where I’ve been until now
and I don’t know where I’ll go
I just know that I’m with you right now
I just know

is this a song about forgiveness?
is this the song to set us free?
you and I, are we the victims or the witness
to what can and cannot be?
is this light the light of wisdom,
of some truth, sent from above?
is this song a song of salvation or surrender?
is this the shining face of love?

I don’t know where I’ve been until now
and I don’t know where I’ll go
I just know that I’m with you right now
that’s all I know

The River Knows

I think she thought the distance was too far
I think she thought I longed to be a star
I think she said to me, boy, this never can be
I even think I heard her say goodbye

she led me by the hand and through her hometown, past the humming yellow streetlight driveway drone
past her parent’s anxious stares and their virgin mother prayers.
through the winding winter streets we walked alone
did we stumble, did we crawl, did we fly or finally fall to the place beside the river that we found?
she told the river’s name to me, I told the river mine softly, then we listened to the magic water’s sound

and now the river— knows my name
I spoke it like a password or a prayer
I know it saw her dark eyes shine, it could taste the tears in mine
and it felt the wind so gently move her hair

we watched there from the water’s edge, she told me of her dreams, I don’t recall a single word I said
but the words that people say like the prayers that prayers pray
can fall and tangle like the sheets from off a bed
how the stars did shine down to light up the crown the queen of night was wearing for the show
she reached out her hand as we both did try to stand and wipe the midnight dirt from off our clothes

and now the river— knows my name
I spoke it like a password or a prayer
I know it saw her dark eyes shine, it could taste the tears in mine
and it felt the wind so gently move her hair

I still see her winter breath curling through the night, drifting to its rest among the stars
‘sweet longing’ was the scene, the picture frame around a dream
whispered by the passing highway cars
I cannot sing today the words I could not say the broken wings that would not fold or fly
the river there still flows with all the things it knows those things that will forever pass me by.

Not Chosen

(after a poem by Ahkmatova)

I am not chosen that’s not your fault
but say goodbye to your pillar of salt.
Just turn away, love, leave me behind,
let me pass from your heart to your mind
and down the road, you tell the world
that I was the one who turned.

you talked of love to me, sweet things I heard,
the sweet secret song of some heavensent bird
but the bird on the wing, love, he just sings his song.
he’s not the judge of who’s right or wrong
and though he flies so high above
love brings him down.

in your history, darling, love seems to fade.
your songs sing praise of the walls that we made
but the warmth of our bed, the laugh of a child—
who will remember the way that you smiled?
these things are real, though you would not hold them
you walked away.

I am not chosen that’s not your fault
but say goodbye to your pillar of salt.
Just turn away, love, leave me behind,
let me pass from your heart to your mind
and down the road, you tell the world
that I was the one who turned.

None The Wiser

none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser only hungry tired and blue
for all my time at searching to find just one thing true
I guess I should have known I’d find it when I came home to you

I’m a soldier coming home from the war
the victor or the vanquished only wanting nothing more
it’s long ago forgotten now what he was fighting for

none the wiser, I’ve come home to you
none the wiser for all the battles I’ve been through
I see the tattered banners hanging in a blue and breathless sky
still I see their colors gently turning there in your eyes

I climbed onto the mountain top to see what I could see
no angel come to touch my lips with a burning kiss for me
the songs that I was going to sing, the message I was going to bring,
my blind and lonely wandering, these were to be my offering to thee

none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser only come to learn one journey is through
and that all of the darkness I have been through
has been along a path that leads me back home to you

I see one pale star in the night
with its memory and a promise of the light
and I know the blind man’s recollection of his sight

none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser I have come home to you

these songs are published in

available at