Wednesday, November 21, 2012


We fast approach the big day of the big meal,football games, and —for many— some awkward and/or contentious conversation. The different generations and different branches of the family tree pick this day to come together and, well... sometimes they differ. I was at first tempted to mark the day here by once again posting the lyrics to the great Lou and Peter Berryman song "Uncle Dave's Grace" just to poke some fun at the idea. The song tells the sad story of the time Dave is given the honors and with each blessing of the table he cites also the plight of the oppressed and the crimes of society that rendered them. From "grapes in my wine" picked by hunched back laborers to the salad bowl "hacked out of tropical treesI've always enjoyed the deadpan comedy of the narrator as he notes each of Uncle Dave's many laudable ethical observations, folded so neatly into his prayer, as they slowly drain celebration from the feast —until with the last verse:

We felt so guilty when he was all through
It seemed there was one of two things we could do
Live without food, in the nude, in a cave,
Or next year have someone say grace besides Dave.

But putting that song forward put me in mind of another take on the subject of differences I've been mulling lately. Laughing at the differences that might arise over the dinner table might be one approach, but we all know I like to fancy myself a champion of reasoned debate. I don't mean to dismiss the importance of real differences we might have with one another. I don't mean to tell folks to shy away from issues and considerations that are important to them. But I do want to share the interview I heard a while back with Anthony Appiah on the radio program, On Being.

Appiah talks about the idea of "siddling up to difference" as a way, not of avoiding issues and differences, but as a way of approaching them with some other goal in mind, beyond contest. First you find that place where you can recognize the other as essentially human (thus, possibly flawed) —and you recognize the same in yourself and in your own views. Maybe across a table is such a place for that mutual recognition. Towards the end of the Appiah interview you find yourself gathered around a supper table (Julia Childs' table no less):

Mr. Appiah: ... As I say, I wish I spent more of my time around people that disagreed with me more about politics... years ago when I was living in Boston... Julia Childs. I forget when this was, but say this was about 10 or 15 years ago. She was older at that point and her husband had died. She was worried about the state of sort of race discussions in society. So what did she do, being Julia Childs, she summoned a group of people to come and have dinner and talk about it at her house in Cambridge. So there was kind of a mixed-race group around the table. You know, most of us can't do that. You can't just summon people.

Ms. Tippett: But we might be able to do our version of that.

Mr. Appiah: But we could do more of that. Look, one of the great privileges of a free society is that you don't have to spend all your time thinking about the government. So you can easily have a life in which you do almost nothing except vote to participate in the life of the republic. I understand why that is, but if we were to spend more of our time on the life of the republic not directly, you know, by focusing on having more and more political conversations in town halls and some, but by getting together with people in our communities and talking about these things in a way that brought us to a deeper understanding of each other, that would be well worth it, I think.

And the republic would work better because you would be thinking about Joe and Mary and not about conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats and you would know that you knew some awfully nice people who were, for some bizarre reason, not convinced that you are completely correct about every political question. 

Amen to that... and pass the gravy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What light we have

I'm sure it's not entirely coincidence that the new Spielberg film on Lincoln comes out this past weekend, what with the country having just chosen its president for the next four years. There's nothing accidental in the timing of a major release like this. For everything there is a season. No doubt there was some temptation to release a biopic about a president of such mythic status just a couple weeks earlier, into the midst of the campaign, such that each side in the contest could lay some claim to the character (and thereby boost the box office return) —and I'm sure some asked, if there's a political message to the movie, why not send the dog out to hunt?

But the decision was made to wait one beat past the confetti and falling balloons, and I think the decision was a good and purposeful one, because from what I've read —I haven't seen it yet— the film isn't exactly a simplistic homage. The character and the history at study are complex, deserving of sober consideration more than campaign spin. While Andrew O'Hehir, writing a review for, allows that the film is "an inspiring story of American greatness" —in the next breath he cautions "...if you say that, also say that it’s a cautionary tale of American mendacity and hypocrisy, the unfinished story of a cancerous evil that poisoned and divided America from its birth and does so still."

Some might have worried that Spielberg's picture would be simply more cultish adulation for Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator posed against obvious evil, yet from what I've read the character depicted is a very human, very political man with some share his own of that mendacity and hypocrisy, mixed in with the admirable principle and courage. Lincoln the bold and noble statesman and Lincoln the careful and conniving politician stand in the same shoes, and upon no pedestal. In another earlier essay written during the heat of the campaign, O'Hehir noted the parallel between Lincoln's time and our own: "Indeed, the startling conclusion forced upon you by 'Lincoln' is that the more things change in American politics the more they stay the same." Just days before the election he observed "whichever man is elected on Tuesday faces a political landscape nearly as divided and poisonous as the one confronted by the 16th president."

It is in that context that we are now given to reflect, "Barack Obama won!"

Is there lesson in Abraham Lincoln's story for all of us as we gather ourselves just past the election? I'll admit I've enjoyed the last few days on the most base level, as one who identifies with the winner of a contest. I've learned a new word —schadenfreude— I'd heard it before but never bothered to look it up —and I must confess I have partaken of that "pleasure in the pain of others" —in the bitter tears of folks like Karl Rove, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. I do have the sense, though, that this is ultimately an empty pleasure and it is with this realization that I'm drawn to the historical example of Lincoln. It's not the victor over slavery and the champion of the union, for me though, so much as the humble and flawed —yet wise— man who advised his countrymen 'malice towards none' even in the moment of victory he addressed in his second inaugural. The charity of hope and healing towards all who had borne the fight —this was Lincoln's advice as war drew to a close.

Should we heed something of the same as an election is now behind us?

The other night President Obama gave his victory speech and, with perhaps some sense of symmetry —or irony, he harkened back to the themes of his first presidential campaign and the rhetoric of the first major speech of his career in national politics. Hope, he said, he had never been more hopeful about our country.

"And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight." He closed alluding to that appeal to a larger and deeper unity that first placed him on the national stage. "I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America."

I know there are some who argue that President Obama has practiced the divisive politics he complains about, just as there are some who argue it was Lincoln whose politics tried our union  in a terrible war. Both contentions are arguable. I know I've argued with them. Me, I'm put in mind of that moment back during his first term when President Obama turned specifically to Lincoln for example. Recall that on the eve of the House vote to pass the Affordable Care Act into law he quoted from Lincoln's journal. “I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true,” he said. “I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.”

"What light I have" —that light poses the complexity to us, doesn't it? On the one hand we are to regard it as profound and true, an absolute indication of what is right and moral and just as we are given the grace to see it. It illuminates exactly what we must do. On the other we are challenged to see by that same light that our enemies —those who would question or challenge what we've seen— those we would fight and hope to defeat to achieve our purpose— are not different from ourselves. They are, in fact, ourselves.

Naturally, we wonder about the result of this election, whether we are in for the status quo or out to find some better path. "Fondly we hope, fervently do we pray," as Lincoln said, back in the day. And maybe it was with some sense of symmetry —or irony that he noted, at the ending war "the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

Friday, November 2, 2012


I’d like to think this moment changed something—that it could. I don’t want it to change the result of the coming election. I’m already wanting and wishing on that subject enough already. I don’t even want it to change the policy debate. We can go ahead argue about FEMA and whether federal resourcing and management are the best way to address disaster relief —once everyone is in where it’s safe and dry we can have that discussion. But the thing I’d really like to believe changed is on the level of mutual respect.

I can recall that Governor Christie of New Jersey was pretty darned forceful in his repudiation of President Obama back when he was addressing the keynote to the Republican National Convention this summer. What the country lacked in its president was leadership, he said, several times and several different ways. Again and again. It wasn’t a pretty speech (not in my book anyway) but it scored on the level of political invective —which is the game we play these days. And all through the subsequent campaign Chris Christie has been “the man with the pan” for the President, delivering mal mots for Mitt at the drop of a hat..

At a Romney rally not two weeks  ago, the governor offered that President Obama was “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue,” adding  “he’s like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership, and he just can’t find it.” Of course the putdown line got a good rise out of folks in attendance.

Then along came Hurricane Sandy and The Governor of New Jersey had to attend to the job he was elected to do by the citizens of his state —the President attended to his job as well— and to his credit, Governor Christie’s story changed.

“I have to say, the administration, the President, himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far,” Christie said on Good Morning America reporting in the morning after the storm came ashore. “We have a great partnership with them,” he said. And as for the guy in the dark room fumbling for the light switch— “He worked on [early disaster declaration] last night with me, offered any other assets that we needed to help,” Christie said. “I want to thank the President personally for his personal attention to this.”

Touring the storm damaged area and appearing to speak to the press together, Christie and Obama made for all appearances like something of a mutual admiration society. “It’s been a great working relationship to make sure that were doing the job people elected us to do,” Christie enthused. The President answered “I have to say that Gov. Christie throughout this process has been responsive. He’s been aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this incredible storm and I think the people of New Jersey recognize that he has put his heart and soul into making sure the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before. So, I just want to thank him for his extraordinary leadership and partnership.”

Damn— What’s a bile frothing bitter partisan hack to do with talk like that?

These last few days Governor Christie has faced some amount of nervous questioning and open criticism from folks of his own political stripe —a little like Dylan at Newport when he went electric, or when he started singing about his Born Again Christianity in the 80's —dude, his fans turned critics chime, we liked the old stuff. Christie's answer has been plain —whether it was answering George Stefanopoulus on GMA or the fine folks at 'Fox and Friends' —that the last thing on his mind, as he sets about doing the work he was elected to do by the citizens of his state, the last thing is the gamesmanship of presidential politics. Tweeted back in the general direction of his critics : "Today I'm touring NJ with President Obama. Yes, he's a Democrat, and I'm a Republican. We're also adults, and this is how adults behave."

Adults— now that would be a change.

Make no mistake. While I often opine from a Liberal and Democratic perspective, I know full well Democrats and Liberals can embrace some of the same dumb and divisive tactics they complain about when they are trained on them. And I don't want political differences to disappear. We'd be in real trouble if they did. It's the way we handle elections as blood sport contests is what we all have to work on changing. Instead of contests of caricature and invective, we should make our differences more substantive and candid —to borrow Christie's term— "adult." Then those differing ideas might actually be useful. That's the change I hope for in that moment you see pictured with this post, just something on that level of mutual respect.