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.