Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One more insult to the injury

The most disturbing aspect of the sorry spectacle of President Bush's last State Of The Union Address —his airbrushed rendering of his Mideast misadventure. As he reminisced about the blue fingered photo-op Iraqi elections and waxed poetic about that nation as some new bastion of freedom in the region, as he boasted of the progress we'd supposedly made buying off support among the different factions, he simply ignored the destructive effects of our policies.

Where it concerned the situation in Iraq the president's address wasn't any realistic accounting of the state of affairs. It was a delusional display of false premises and distorted fantasy.

As most all of the previous justifications for invading Iraq have fallen away over the past years, Bush and his supporters have liked to point out, with something of a shrug, that Iraqis (those that had survived) were "better off anyway." They would point to Saddam Hussein's regime and its despotic practices and argue that a better end for Iraq's citizens would ultimately justify the Bush league's somewhat disingenuous means.

Yes, and they would ignore the fact that the new constitution we helped engineer largely served to erode civil liberties (once understood to actually constitute "freedoms") for women and religious minorities.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports that "women's rights groups report that in the past six months, more than 100 women have been killed in the city of Basra for wearing make-up or what is deemed Western clothing. Those who dare to defend them have also been attacked and, in some cases, killed."

"I have just talked to Prime Minister Maliki, and he has asked me to pass on his thanks to you for what you have done to help rebuild the democracy of Iraq." That's the new British Prime Minister Brown speaking to Britain's coalition troops as they stood down and ceded security in the Basra region to Iraqi control.

As our own president applauded himself the other night for having "al Qaeda on the run" in Iraq, he neglected to point out they weren't an established presence in the country prior to our invasion and occupation. As he praised Iraqi tribal elements for turning against bin Laden's militants, he neglected to mention that this change of heart was helped along by large amounts of U.S. money and our sanction of local autonomy for the Sunni militias —that, in opposition to Iraq's own central government.

American policy in Iraq has been to effectively arm both sides of the internal sectarian divide and to then arm those neighbors in the region who might hedge our bet if that game gets out of hand. The majority Shia's cultural ties to Iran have made democracy (per se) problematic in Iraq from the start. But in Bush administration thinking that's nothing a few large arms sales to Saudi Arabia can't counterbalance.

The final insult (perhaps that's wishful thinking) came in news just one day after the president's State Of The Union rhapsody on "trusting" and empowering" the people through the forthright practice of democracy. The president reminded us of his self anointed "signing powers" —stating that he would ignore a bipartisan congressional mandate against establishing permanent bases in Iraq. The president "cashed the check" so to speak, as he signed a defense appropriation, but as he did, he announced he would ignore that part of the legislation that contained language barring permanent bases. Yes, he signed the bill, but then "clarified" that he won't "allow" Congress to erode his powers as commander-in-chief.

As I pointed out in an earlier posting, the president has seen fit to make our military commitments in Iraq simply inextricable. By virtue of "agreements" with the Iraqi government —not treaties, mind you, which would require congressional approval— the president has committed us to a sustained military "partnership" wherein the US will provide its assistance in addressing both "internal and external threats"(that should just about cover things)to the government of Iraq in perpetuity. There is some "preferred status" guaranteed for future American investment in the Iraqi economy built into these treaties —er, I mean agreements. (Translation: there's oil in the deal.)

The final irony (again wishful thinking) is that the Iraqi parliament (elected by all those jubilant blue-fingered folks, you might recall) had cited law barring Prime Minister Maliki from signing his country into such agreements, too. The Iraqi Constitution, while vague on civil liberty issues, is fairly clear on how to go about executing treaties and international agreements. They are supposed to be ratified by a two thirds majority of their legislative council. The problem is a clear majority in the Iraqi parliament has called for a timetable for a complete U.S. withdrawal.

(Sound familiar?)

The Maliki government has announced that "while it respects the parliament" it does not see the terms of the strategic partnership it has outlined with the Bush administration as a treaty ...per se.

Not exactly.

Maybe there is some consistency in George W. Bush's conception of democracy after all —and, sad to say, it is contagious.

Monday, January 28, 2008

This is campaigning?
Well, I suppose that depends on how you define 'is'!

Democratic party leadership was confronted with a problem. There was movement afoot to break with tradition and question the established wisdom of New Hampshire and Iowa's influential place as the earliest contests in the primary season. There was pressure to change the subsequent schedule of primaries through "Super Tuesday" and beyond, as well. Some larger delegate-rich states argued that their primaries deserved earlier, more prominent attention, while smaller states countered that their more intimate politics served as the better early vetting, or dress rehearsal, for the larger elections.

When Florida and Michigan defied the DNC requests to schedule their primaries only after Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina had voted —and not before "Super Tuesday," the committee countered by asking for a pledge from all leading candidates not to campaign in those states.

The party found itself trying to referee the electoral elbowing and looked to the leading presidential candidates for help.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Man I Killed

This song was written in response to author, Tim O'Brien's short story of the same name that appeared in the collection, "The Things They Carried."

The Man I Killed

When I close my eyes, I still see him
in the misty light of not quite day—
blue flowers by the side of the road where he fell
a star-shaped wound where his eye once was.

I see the butterfly lit upon the wreckage of his face
and to this day I cannot explain
those golden wings that touched something deep inside of me,
something that I know that I can never name.

The Man I Killed was more than a story
or some offering of imaginary pain.
It’s not some lie about destiny or glory
found within the Southeast Asia rain.

The Man I killed is something I have carried
from that dawning day and through every day that came
to tell me that I must tell the story,
that I must live,
that I must feel this pain.

He was a small—still young —almost beautiful man,
small wrists—small waist—smooth skin.
He carried his weopan with the muzzle towards the ground,
a school boy with a belt of ammunition.

I know he saw my handgrenade land at his feet,
but he did not cry out—or even make a sound.
He took one step, then up into the air,
then he landed broken on the ground.

The Man I Killed was more than a story
or an offering of imaginary pain.
It’s not some lie about destiny or glory
found within the Southeast Asia rain.

The Man I killed is something I have carried
from that dawning day and through every day that came
to tell me that I must tell the story,
that I must live,
that I must feel this pain.

In my dreams sometime I let him pass me by
and he passes as if there isn’t any war.
I see his eyes in a way I never really saw them
and his life, like mine, continues down the road,

down the road, down the years, down the hours to this day
to where his children ask for stories of the war.

When I close my eyes, I still see him
in the misty light of not quite day—
blue flowers by the side of the road where he fell
a star-shaped wound where his eye once was.

this song is published in

available at

listen to the song at

Monday, January 21, 2008

The personal history of a dream

I realized a while back that the first time I saw the famous “I have a dream” speech must have been in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I don’t remember any of the scary images that have since waxed with time and attached themselves to that day, the rage and violence that tore through the poor black neighborhoods of so many American cities in reaction, Bobby Kennedy’s aching announcement to a crowd in Indianapolis, his imploring his audience not to react in racial hatred. Those are all historical facts that formed, for me, over time since then to define that day and that loss, after the fact.

I was six years old that day and I’m sure my mother did her best to shelter me from the disturbing images and troubling news. But at the same time, there’s only so much you can hide from a child. That old black and white Zenith, my dearest friend in the family den, the same television set that brought Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo in the morning, also brought news of war and social strife in the early evenings. The toy soldiers in my hands fought it out on the braided carpet while my mother worked up dinner out in the kitchen.

But that early evening it wasn’t some scary report about a war far away. There was no talk of Lyndon Johnson —that man my father was always so angry with. It wasn’t the rise of violent crime or the decadence of degenerate hippies on the evening news. The man on the television spoke of this his dream, of the nation rising up “to live out the true meaning of its creed.”

From those same days —early April, 1968, I do remember an image of Coretta Scott King, her face behind a transparent veil, holding her daughter. And I remember that speech on the television. I know, at the time, I hadn’t even connected these into a coherent understanding of what had happened. I knew what a funeral was. And I know I was struck with the sadness of this beautiful black woman with her child. Slow gracious movement in somber shades of gray. This did not equate in my mind with this man speaking of his dream.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I lived in a safe white quiet suburban town. I had some sense of those facts too. The neighborhood my grandparents lived in back in Boston had become “less safe” —and I saw what that meant in terms of the color of your neighbor’s skin. My parents weren’t civil rights activists at the time, they weren’t reactionary bigots either. My mom was cool with me playing with the one black kid at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, at the same time she was frightened every time we visited the home where she grew up, where each time it was a little less like the neighborhood she’d known. Black faces from families no one knew. Reports of rising crime. The old neighborhood, it felt dangerous, foreign.

But there in the den, the man on television spoke of his own children, and he spoke of “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” sitting at a table. He spoke of how “ day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers..."

"I have a dream today,” he said.

There are things you learn and you remember where and when you learned them. Sometimes that learning comes in a moment, even before you can put the lesson into words yourself. You remember such moments. And I know what that six year old, watching tv in the den, took away from that speech. It was an understanding of racism as something that stole as much from those who practice it, as it does from those who are the object of its spiritual violence. Racism, I could see it as something sharp like a knife, with no safe handle. I saw how it cut both ways. That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. got across to me that day, that he wasn’t only trying to achieve something on behalf of his oppressed people, that the message of brotherhood was something offered to the oppressed and the oppressors alike. It was offered to those who reacted in anger, even to those who turned away in fear. What he dreamed was a dream on behalf of all of us, of “all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”

He dreamed of them all, singing.

Obviously I didn’t translate King’s message into those terms right then and there. I was six. But I do remember walking out of the den and into the kitchen. The den was a dark room where the shades were almost always drawn —ideal for television viewing. The kitchen was brighter. I went to talk to my mother about what I’d just seen and what I took it to mean. I don’t recall what I managed to say, but I do recall her smile.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Barack, I knew Ronald Reagan ... and you're no Ronald Reagan

greater than or equal?
Can you spell “distortion”?

Everywhere I turn the past few days I come across this conveniently edited video where Obama acknowledges that Ronald Reagan changed the direction of the country.

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism"

That's the quote that has them all howling. Barack is "betraying the progressive cause" for having said this. "This is an offense to Democrats everywhere!" Predictably the rival campaigns have been all over this one like a bad smell.

Here’s a quote from the same interview moments later.

“I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it has to do with the times. I think we are in one of those fundamentally different times right now were people think that things, the way they are going, just aren’t working.”

It’s amazing what a little editing can do.

A candidate can be discussing how a political campaign can come to be representative of ideas and ideals and offer a profound shift, different candidates …different ideals. He can be discussing how the political culture and climate is calling for a certain kind of response —and the next minute, with a little prudent editing …POOF: “So Obama is a closet Reaganite! Gee whiz! Isn’t that a bad thing to say in the middle of the Democratic primary season?”

This is what they call D-I-S-T-O-R-T-I-O-N

Though I’m not an insider with the campaign, I will tell you what I THINK Obama was trying to get across. The country is at a place of crucial decision right now. We are at the exhausted end of an era (hopefully) and where we go next is a central question. The two examples he gave, and equated, might be something of a clue. Kennedy came along after eight years of Ike and Nixon and Cold War anxiety. Obviously there was more of that anxiety to come, but Kennedy reinvigorated the nation with a sense of purpose and mission.

Reagan came along and found the nation in a similarly exhausted and anxious place. If you’ll recall the incumbent president described our condition as a “malaise”. Like his methods or not (and I most certainly don’t) Reagan sold the country on a renewed sense of itself as “freedom’s great shining light on a hill” or some other such rhetoric. That was the mirror, what happened in the smoke is another story.

The country did undergo a profound change, not necessarily for the better on many counts, but it changed. I think the common theme Obama was trying to describe was that when the country hits these points of exhausted anxiety and "malaise," we like to harken back to core ideals and reach for larger paradigmatic change.

Ronald Reagan sold a bit more than he delivered in my estimation. There was promise Kennedy never got to deliver. With Obama, just maybe there’s hope.

Here's a link to the whole interview. Judge for yourself.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The history of the absurd

The Reagan of Giuliani's Dreams
History, they say, is written by the victors. And that writing, it's a fascinating process to observe, one that reshapes and colors the confusing stir of "current events" as they become just a little less current. This process leaves us with a story, with supposedly clear moral lessons, with good guys and bad guys and crucial episodes, a kind of retroactive must-see-tv of the human experience.

And as the forces at play in history continue to contend, we often find ourselves witness to history being rewritten.

Just the other night I was suffering through the onslaught of political ads that had come to fill every commercial break in my viewing pleasure (it was the eve of the New Hampshire primaries —I was just trying to watch some darned football) when who should appear but Rudy Giuliani with his unnaturally large teeth and his own peculiar reading (or should I say writing?) of history.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Winter Prayer

Winter Prayer

The brittle voiceless earth
will not add to the music wind just now,
not one pale green lyric, not one tender syllable,
not a word, not a sound, not
today, not tomorrow.

The distant sun’s disinterest
will continue in the time next to come.
The harrowing cold will remain, asking and unanswered.
The withering light will wither more
while certain souls make a wishful study
of the sky, advancing their theories of the coming thaw.

What scientist or priest first noticed the shape?
—of a stone turning in hand, or the sewer’s needle
disappearing into dark fabric and appearing again
each time—each breath following the next
to ignite the heart’s same effort
—what scientist or priest?



As yet, the prayer I am imagining
hasn’t any words. It doesn’t ask or prescribe
faith, or acceptance, or hope. It is only
that understanding of music that would try
to hear and hold it —know it, that it might survive the larger silence.
It is that memory without mind that dark envisions
the frigid seed in a lifeless matrix of soil,
soil that, it is somehow known, will again, one day soon
—in time, warm —then waken,

just utter —then sing.

Not today, not tomorrow, but again.


Friday, January 4, 2008

Sleepers, joining hands

It was October 2004. I had come to this beautiful rural retreat in the Berkshires to hear Robert Bly and Coleman Barks conduct a seminar on "the poetry of the ecstatic." Barks had become famous over the years for his translations of the Sufi mystic poet, Rumi and Robert Bly ...well, he was Robert Bly. He had become just a bit more famous with his best seller “Iron John” back in the nineties, but that was only to augment an already distinguished career, as a poet and translator, as a cultural and literary critic, as an activist voice. I’d been reading him devotedly for more than twenty years. His gorgeous “A Third Body” was read at my wedding (by an achingly hung over survivor of my bachelor party, no less).

Yes, and it was mid October. The gorgeous autumn leaves seemed to smolder their colors in the misty light of that weekend. The sky was a strangely atomized milky substance, something surrounding, that dampened skin and sound. Chilled. Oceanic. We swam there.

This retreat had been a wonderful birthday gift from my family and I’d looked forward to it that entire Fall. The Red Sox had lost the first two games of the League Championship Series to the Yankees and so I was essentially okay with being away from television and emails for a rustic weekend of inspired poetry, a weekend of likening the beauty of one’s beloved to some unspoken language of God. The gorgeous logic of the Creator in the quiet of her eyes. That intoxicating essence. I was there and ready for that language and logic.

It was October 2004 and perhaps the one thing that had occupied my thoughts more than anything else in the months preceding was the presidential election. It was almost over now and there were, I believed, signs of hope. I’d helped put together fundraisers. I’d canvassed door to door. I’d written impassioned appeals and licked countless envelopes and stamps. I’d done everything I could think of to do. My son was just thirteen years old, my daughter ten. My brother, a soldier in The Massachusetts Army National Guard, was already overseas. This contest had become something more than an abstract question about political philosophy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

And what is the first?

And what is the last.

Even now I live
That moment by the water—
Ice, not quite to shore.

Silence surrounding
The pale sight of rising breath—
Aching to be heard.

And never knowing
What is not yet the first thought
And what is the last.

This poem appears in

available at