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