Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Mark Will You Leave upon this World?

My granddaughter was here last weekend, and I’ve spent the last two days trying to find and clean all her little hand prints from the sliding doors opening to the deck beyond. She’s at an age when she can stand well while leaning, and she loves to lean upon glass to see the great wide world on the other side.

While I clean and wipe away her little imprints, I wonder what interests will burn in and through her. What will imprint upon her and in turn, define the mark she will leave upon this world? I hope to live as long as I possibly can so that I can bear witness to the ways in which she answers my question, and I hope to do my part to keep her safe from harm.

I have also wondered about the imprints others are leaving upon this world, leading me to think of U. S. senators who stood united against extending background checks for previously unregulated firearms purchases such as sales at gun shows and between private parties. Frightened by the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) threats and determined to oppose significant legislation favored by President Barack Obama, forty-five senators refused to discuss, converse, or support modest, sensible reform, but the final number of no votes was forty-six. After the number of votes to defeat a filibuster fell short of sixty, Senator Harry Reid changed his yes to no.

Thus, forty-six senators ignored Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a survivor of gun violence, of firearms too easily accessed by individuals with poor reasoning skills and/or serious mental health problems. Those senators rebuffed letters and phone calls from their constituents in favor of lobbying efforts by the NRA. And they refused to believe in the grief of Newtown, Connecticut parents who bore witness to their cowardice from the gallery.

Of course, these senators rationalized their opposition. They claimed that background checks for more sales would push the nation to the brink of a slippery slope; i.e., that support for extending background checks would make it easier to attack the sacred Second Amendment. No such legislation is up for consideration. In fact, the argument is entirely conjecture; it’s hypothetical, not founded upon reason and evidence, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Opponents also claimed that no legislation would save all the children and adults who die as a result of gun violence annually. And that claim, we must grant, is true. Nothing will save everyone from themselves, from madmen, from people under the influence, from passion and rage, from criminals, from misinformation and deliberate lies. There is no fail-safe. But as the proponents claimed: if this legislation saves just one person, then it is worth our trouble and our care.

What if parents excused their responsibilities to their children by neglecting to protect them from hot stoves or sunburns or insect bites because no single action can protect them from all potential hazard? What if they ignored basic lessons in hygiene because germs will pass from hand to hand, children will become sick, and nothing anyone does will change that fact? We would charge those parents with willful neglect of duty, with abuse. We would not accept their justification any more than we should accept the same argument from members of a once esteemed, now corroded, body.

Another misdirection by nay-sayers is a Red Herring accomplished by shifting the blame from guns to violent video games and Hollywood movies. Such a dodge suggests how little the speaker thinks of his audience. He must believe his listener is parochial and provincial, unaware that the rest of the world plays those games and sees those movies without the same consequences in the streets of those other nations.

I wrote to one of my state’s senators, Senator Roy Blunt, after he voted no, and received his rationalization. He claimed that he voted no because he is a defender of the Second Amendment, something that was in no way endangered by the senate bill. He also said that he looks forward to a conversation about how to reduce gun violence in our nation, but he has thus far failed to initiate one with me, his colleagues in the Senate, or the American people. I don’t expect to hear from him on the matter at any time in the future either, and I’m disappointed to learn that he thinks so little of my knowledge that he believes his eyewash will suffice. I won’t expect much more than deception, smoke and mirrors from him henceforth.

The worst lie that some of these senators tell themselves and us is that good guys with guns make us all safer. It’s just not so, and if they believe it is so, then they are woefully ignorant. If they do not believe it to be so and repeat what they know to be untrue, then they must be held to account. They must be called out and voted out.

Before the CDC was prohibited by Congress from gathering information about gun violence and thanks to a few comprehensive articles about guns in America, we know that links between firearms and personal safety are specious.. Some people may use guns to protect themselves, but guns are more likely to cause harm, either accidentally or maliciously.

So, Senate Gang of Forty-Six, what is your imprint upon this world? It is an extended palm, open for PAC and campaign contributions in exchange for votes favorable to the NRA and a small number of constituents who dominate primary elections. Your imprint is also one not easily wiped away. It’s stained with the blood of all those who will die by gun before the next election in November 2014. 

Atticus Finch, a fictional version of Harper Lee’s own father, imprinted upon this world through perseverance, education, and a sense of purpose. He believed in justice and in service to the greater community, both in evidence when he agreed to take Tom Robinson’s case. Atticus could have used his status as a widower with two growing children as an excuse, but he did not. He believed that his children would follow as he lived so he lived purposefully even when his actions endangered his position in the community. Would that the Gang of Forty-Six Senators held the same moral compass to guide them, caring less about re-election and more about the general welfare.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Lessons in Civility from Justin Bieber and Boston

Atticus Finch, in whose name this blog began, set the bar of civility very high. He soared over it effortlessly, and he tried to teach his children to do the same. Scout, as the novel begins, has a long way to go. Her first instinct is to settle matters by fighting, but Atticus insists that Scout learn to hold in. Jem has lessons to learn as well, especially after he retaliates against Mrs. Dubose’s racist taunts. Atticus condemns Jem to sit by the bed of the woman who disgusts him and read to her without rancor.

Atticus also teaches his children by example. He refuses to raise a hand or complaint against Bob Ewell after Bob spits in Atticus’s face. Recognizing that Bob is on the lowest rung of Maycomb’s ladder, impotent to change his circumstances or public opinion, Atticus turns the other cheek and grants the man his pathetic attempt to assert himself.

Such grace under pressure--such reserve--is admirable, and that is what the media has chosen to highlight in Boston--as they should. Reserve is crucial in a civil society. Reserve is what checks our baser instincts. We’ve even codified it in civil and criminal law. Reserve in discourse is civility itself, and it elevates public conversations to the level of ideas and goals rather than petty differences, sacred cows, and flawed judgments.

Civility also helps us hold our tongues against gossip. Civility is what should dictate our response to young Justin Bieber and his tweet about Anne Frank? Bieber my be an adult legally, but realistically, experientially, he’s a boy, just nineteen years old. He has not blossomed fully, and he certainly hasn’t bloomed. His sense of the world and his responsibilities in it are just beginning to bud. He may sing pretty well and possess some stage presence, but he has yet to face the blows that life delivers upon us all. The boy will become a man as he faces tests of character and challenges to his will. He will rise and fall, once, twice, again and again; he will triumph and fail many times. Let us hope he will grow to accomplish feats that amaze, but until he does, be tolerant of his youth; be civil. His na├»ve, self-serving Tweet is not fit subject matter for newsreaders; it’s just gossip, neither sufficiently evil nor even so shallow as to draw notice. Turn away. Be still. Be a First Responder, rendering aid rather than contributing to a rancorous discourse.

Perhaps if we could hold our tongues, gossip will fade in the political arena, but today, it’s alive and cutting into the marrow of our culture. In my birth state, Oklahoma, Tea-Party leader Al Gerhardt has been indicted for extorting State Senator Cliff Branan who refused to haul Tea-Party water. Gerhardt ordered State Senator Branan to “ Get that bill [in opposition to U.N. Agenda 21] heard or I will make sure you regret not doing it. I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don't hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru [sic] family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise.” Still, Senator Branan declined to surrender his conscience or his vote. Consequently, in an effort to sully or assassinate Branan’s character, Mr. Gerhardt breathed life into gossip. He accused the senator of being a philanderer .

Such toxic language, near and far, tears at us. Such language drives us apart and imprisons us in divided camps. We cannot, shall not, let it wound us; we cannot, shall not, let it escalate into bombs and bloodshed. We shall instead rise above, come together, help each other heal. We are the people whose names will not be attached to vitriolic radio programs and gossip networks disguised as fair and balanced.

We are the people who will help an injured runner to his feet, supporting him as he crosses the finish line, his legs still weak and shaky after the concussive blast. We are the people who sort through untold debris and human detritus, who clean the blood and sweep the streets. We do the unpleasant tasks and in doing them, we demonstrate grace and civility. We cherish order and will labor to restore it. We hug our children and make them safe. And we are the people who do not rush to judgment about the color of skin or nation of birth that produced the bomber. We remember to be circumspect about the stories we repeat.

Most important, we shirk from inflicting more harm. Disenchanted, misguided criminals lacking a moral compass will never destroy the innate goodness in the human species. They will instead find justice somewhere, one day. And youth still under construction, the Justin Biebers of the world, will mature. We can only hope that when they do, they will have learned something about perspective, that this world of human suffering is not a fit place to promote bebievers. Our own failures, losses, illnesses, and frailties teach us to think less of ourselves, and that’s a very good first lesson in civility

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Traitors Among Us

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I miss Calvin and Hobbs. Whether contending with his long-suffering teacher or stomping on his sandbox cities, Calvin represented an existential angst and the rich possibilities within us all. One of Calvin’s most apparent traits was utter self-absorption. He asserted his will and dared the laws of physics, especially when racing downhill on a simple sled. He also refused to believe that he deserved any of the consequences that followed his egregious deeds, and in a cartoon child, such narcissism tickles us, but in real life, with lives and lands at risk, we can only view such self-absorption in stunned silence. I, for one, cannot comprehend the depravity that allows one man to ruin the lives of others for his own selfish ends, but such men exist. One such man was former President Richard M. Nixon, a man much vilified during and after his tenure as president.

Rachel Maddow, from behind her desk on The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) reported a story about former President Richard M. Nixon and his role in prolonging the Vietnam War. In disbelief, I searched for other sources and found confirmation for the story. Here is a brief summary of what happened.

In 1968, our nation was as polarized as it is now. There was an age divide with youth leading the way in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Police thumped the heads of protestors in the belief that they were doing their righteous duty to quell unwarranted civil disobedience. Returning servicemen and women often felt the frustration and rage directed at the war and a citizen’s impotence in altering our role in it. Those veterans of a war fought on foreign soil often resented anyone who didn’t appreciate their sacrifice, and they were sometimes ashamed of what some men became--homeless, addicted, lost--after being trained as a warrior.

And in 1968, according to the story reported on TRMS, the war was almost over in 1968. The last years of the Vietnam war could have been avoided. President Johnson had negotiated an end until candidate for president Richard M. Nixon, campaigning as the only man who could bring about peace, betrayed the nation and those soldiers who would fight through his first four-year term and on into his second.

Records from the Johnson White House now prove that Nixon contacted Hanoi and talked them into rejecting what the Johnson administration offered. Yes, a candidate for the highest office in this nation, self-absorbed during a personal contest, picked up a telephone and worked with a declared enemy of this nation to stall the peace. Consequently, thousands more died. Children matured without one of their parents. Incomes and homes were shattered and rebuilt. Millions of dollars were lost because one man sought the power of the presidency.

President Johnson was complicit as well. He remained silent even though Nixon’s actions were uncovered almost immediately. He did so because admitting to knowledge about Nixon's phone calls would expose U. S. espionage so Nixon got away with it. In his last days, the former and disgraced president even reclaimed some of his reputation through his efforts to open pathways to China. In fact, many now remember him as a fine elder statesman instead of a traitor to the office of the president and to all those soldiers.

Now we must ask, as Maddow did, to whom should we turn for justice? Upon whom may we heap our disdain?

The men who toyed with the lives of others are dead, but their heirs are among us. They are the ones who invented a fiction that led us to a short war to rescue Kuwait from Iraq during the George H. W. Bush administration and a decade-long debacle in Iraq during George W. Bush’s administration. From these wars come more numbers: hundreds of thousands dead and 2.2 trillion dollars of debt, off the books, never budgeted until Barack Obama took office. These are the tragic consequences of greed and hubris, and the architects--Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and more--are very much alive. What shall we do to them?

Rachel Maddow answers that question. She declares that that we must not allow these men and women to go to their graves with reinvented legacies, reclaimed dignities. We must and should hold them accountable. Our young men and women deserve at least that much from us. Their lives are not like those little toy soldiers that Calvin mowed down. They are often true believers, boys and girls who wish to contribute, to live a life of service, to claim the character of brave patriots. They are so much more than inexhaustible resources. They have names and faces and mothers who bore them and fathers who take pride in them. They are us, and they are our future. They should not and shall not die in vain.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From Sorrow to Triumph

To Kill a Mockingbird resonates with me and many others. Its characters inspired this blog; through it, I celebrate the best and lament the worst in human nature. I often feel like young Jem Finch after he watches his father, Atticus, carefully construct a logical defense for Tom Robinson. Jem is sure that his father has won the day and Robinson’s freedom, but the jury still finds Robinson guilty, and Jem loses faith in his neighbors. It is Miss Maudie Atkinson who offers comfort.

Miss Maudie tells Jem that good people live in Maycomb. A good judge asked Atticus to take the case in the knowledge that no other attorney would provide a vigorous defense. The good Atticus accepts and in doing so, he also accepts derision and spite from some members of his community. Through the trial, Atticus expects his children to summon the good in them. He requires that Scout not fight because some people call her father names; he instructs her not to use the commonplace and common N-word. Atticus even disciplines Jem when he takes out his fear and confusion on those camellias of which Mrs. Dubose is so fond.

Still the knowledge that men and women in Maycomb could risk Tom’s life and endanger the well-being of his family by sending him to prison, then return to business as usual is a terrible lesson for Jem to learn. It is his initiation into adulthood, the moment when innocence is stripped away like a veil dropped.

I can remember such moments in my own life for sadly, even after we think all innocence has been lost, we shore it up, take up hope, and believe again.

Like Jem, I was inconsolable on May 4, 1970 when fellow citizens, Ohio National Guardsmen, some bearing live ammunition, fired upon students protesting Kent State in Ohio. Four died and so did my innocence.

An official, so afraid of peaceable assembly and First Amendment privileges, so determined to restore the public peace, ordered live ammunition be loaded in deadly weapons. Years later, I still dream about the kids so full of passion to set the world right again, and I dream about the guardsmen whose duty it was to aim and fire upon fellow citizens, and I fear that some of them must have endure sleepless nights, horrified by what they witnessed, what they did. Even now, my heart is heavy for the lessons learned that day for surely, some witnesses must believe that no place is safe, that speech may not be free after all.

I was again inconsolable on April 19, 1995 when a student told me that she’d seen dark plumes of smoke arising from downtown Oklahoma City as she drove to school, several hours after first-period. She warned everyone in the classroom that whatever had happened was terrible, that the radio station she was listening to reported loud explosions in that area.

Soon we learned that someone had placed a bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. One hundred and sixty-eight were dead, nineteen of them babies and children in a day care on the second floor, just above the truck carrying a 5,000 pound bomb.

I cried with my students, many of whom had parents working in buildings downtown. One young man was the teenaged uncle of the infant featured on the cover of Newsweek--the bloodied babe in the arms of a firefighter.

I cried again when at last we drove downtown, the smell of burned materials still heavy more than two weeks later. Windows that should have reflected the skies above were blind instead, nothing but decay and destruction in view. I still mourn the babies, for the innocence lost, for the sense that ours is a sensible world when, in fact, around corners and even under foot, is chaos.

This blog began with a survivor of chaos, a woman who was a babe in arms after the United States firebombed Japan. The bombing raids were unrelenting, decimating cities and killing whole swaths of Japanese citizens. One of the architects of that subjugation, Robert McNamara, revealed much later, well after Japan’s surrender and even after Vietnam became two nations divided by cardinal directions, that what happened in Japan exemplifies a basic tenet of warfare: proportionality; i.e., the costs of war should be equal to the benefits, and as an old man, he implied that the costs of firebombing Japan were not equal to the benefits. Japan was supposed to come to the table to surrender and did so only after nuclear power wasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thousands died and more suffered, including one infant whose parents had nothing with which to save her. When I met her, she was middle-aged, her air beginning to gray. She asked to speak to the group of which I was a member, American teachers touring as guests of Japan, and of course, we granted permission, attentive and silent as she read the letter she had prepared, a letter of gratitude for America, for Americans, one in particular who had saved her life.

One U. S. soldier, seeing her family’s despair, gave the family his ration of powdered milk and with that milk, the family saved their youngest child. Life emerged from the ash. International differences dissipated. That one man’s gesture built a bridge through time and insured a future for one woman, now humble before representatives, the first she’d had an opportunity to thank. If only she knew the soldier’s name, then surely his country would wish to thank him as well, she said. His family would have been so proud to know that their son saved a life while conquering a nation.

And thus, I see that from inconsolable moments comes inspiration. Atticus Finch inspired his son. Those four young people killed in Ohio, initially vilified, have become icons for peaceable assembly. We continue to stumble and stagger toward that Constitution ideal, faltering recently during the Occupy eruptions in U. S. cities when a campus officer sprayed non-violent, non-threatening college kids with pepper spray. But the fact that we wrestle with causes that inspire passion and outrage is a testament to the very American desire for good governance. That’s inspirational.

Furthermore, the courage of firefighters and grieving parents in Oklahoma City restore my faith in all that thrives. These men and women prove that we are made of such stuff that we can not only endure, but overcome. May we always triumph in the end.