Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Year to Remember

A year to remember, but I am looking ahead to the new year, and the good work we need to do in this country.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nine Lessons

Working from home today, and listening as I do each year to the broadcast from King's College (Cambridge) of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This lovely holiday tradition dates back to 1918. In the midst of a terrible World War and the Spanish Flu to boot, Eric Milner-White expressed his hope and his faith - and not a little bit of pluck - by creating this program of Scripture readings and hymns celebrating the mystery of God's presence in the world, even in its darkest hour.

As an atheist, I don't buy the basic story line at all, but the human spirit that gave birth to this tradition, and the joy and beauty of its performance, surpasses any criticism. It is a good-hearted program, full of man's desire for peace and fellowship, a reminder to be compassionate, and a reminder of the dignity of all men - the savior of the world, born in the humblest of circumstances.

The broadcast of the Nine Lessons always puts me in the right frame of mind and mood for Christmas. It pulls back from the crummy commercialism that pervades and pollutes - that sucks the life and meaning out of everything it touches. Bill O'Reilly likes to accuse us atheists of making war on Christmas - but the war was fought and won among believers - without a shot being fired, the 80% of Americans that call themselves followers of Christ have turned this great day into a me-first, glitz-and-garland, credit-card-stretching, drop-dead-shopping nightmare.

I am in a great mood - don't be misled by that last bit of commentary - and I am looking forward to hosting my family tomorrow for what I am sure will be a lovely day.

Here's wishing all of you a Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

People's Parties

Jim Atkinson writes in the NY Times about the problem with holiday parties for those of us who are dealing with an addiction to alcohol, and he offers all of us a unique perspective on the holidays - insights that inspired me to think about more than just aiming for moderation in my own holiday alcohol use.

A few excerpts follow:

It’s not that I’m driven to drink; just to a certain uncomfortable distraction that doesn’t leave until the holiday season thankfully does. And it’s not just that the holidays seem to have been invented for the express purpose of promoting — no, necessitating — irresponsible alcoholic consumption.

There’s something in the alone-in-the-crowdness of the holiday party circuit, the forced pleasantries and laughter, the charge to be friendly and engaging — but only in a trivial and superficial way — that is very much like the existential condition of the alcoholic psyche. So the holidays not only remind me of drink; they remind me of how it felt to be a drunk.
Atkinson talks about the experience and mental state of the alcoholic:

...we all tend to be afflicted by a low-grade dysphoria, a sort of constant melancholy that causes feelings of unease, isolation and dissatisfaction with life — an “inexplicable ache,” I once heard it called.
As he looks with understandable dread to the imminent holidays, Atkinson says:

I rather like the view of radio talk show host Don Imus, himself a recovering alcoholic who has been sober 20 years. When the subject of parties came up on his radio show a few years back, Imus noted that he was invited to many but went to very few, for one simple reason: “I don’t drink.”

This seemed to me to be one of the more sensible things ever said about parties or alcoholism. So as the holiday season gets underway, I try to look at it this way. No one really wants to go to all those parties. I’m one of the lucky ones who has an excuse to beg off.
I like the holidays, but I prefer the intimacy of small get-togethers to crowded parties that tend to degrade into trivial superficiality, even when the crowd is mostly close family.

For many of us - those for whom addiction is not the primary concern - the holidays are most disappointing for the sense of lost opportunity, the absence of meaningful interaction. Sometimes a couple of drinks get in the way, but often it is simply designed out of the event by the size of the invite list, the energy expended on the menu, decorations and gifts, and countless other distractions.

This year, I hope to strike a better balance - to invest enough in the hospitality and preparations to make the holiday festive while seeking to make the most of the opportunities for intimacy - to be fully present for those I love.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

McCain's Big Lies

John McCain will never live down the dishonor of his campaign tactics, and of those used by his ill-chosen, half-witted, hockey-mom sidekick. The failure of his attempts to smear Obama in no way diminishes the stain on McCain's character. In the midst of McCain's mudslinging, Bill Ayers made no attempt to defend himself.

It must have been difficult to stand back and let the McCainiac's attack him every day and not say anything to deflect the worst of the misrepresentations and exaggerations. He realized it would only help McCain, and hurt Obama, and so he kept silent.

For all of John McCain's bragging about his own character, the campaign he ran stands as a sharp and compelling counter-argument to that claim. Bill Ayers, whom McCain and Palin sought to destroy in their attempts to swing a few low-information voters in swing states, showed more integrity in his silence than they will ever again be able to claim, no matter how loudly they proclaim it.

Despite all his ghost-written books proclaiming his personal courage and integrity, John McCain offered a convincing refutation in the way he campaigned against Barack Obama. Today, Bill Ayers puts the exclamation point on that refutation in this op-ed piece in the NY Times. A man has a right to defend himself against creeps and bullies like McCain and Palin - I am glad that Ayers has finally had his chance to be heard. Accordingly, I have not abridged the text which follows:

The Real Bill Ayers


IN the recently concluded presidential race, I was unwillingly thrust upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest drama. I refused, and here’s why.

Unable to challenge the content of Barack Obama’s campaign, his opponents invented a narrative about a young politician who emerged from nowhere, a man of charm, intelligence and skill, but with an exotic background and a strange name. The refrain was a question: “What do we really know about this man?”

Secondary characters in the narrative included an African-American preacher with a fiery style, a Palestinian scholar and an “unrepentant domestic terrorist.” Linking the candidate with these supposedly shadowy characters, and ferreting out every imagined secret tie and dark affiliation, became big news.

I was cast in the “unrepentant terrorist” role; I felt at times like the enemy projected onto a large screen in the “Two Minutes Hate” scene from George Orwell’s “1984,” when the faithful gathered in a frenzy of fear and loathing.

With the mainstream news media and the blogosphere caught in the pre-election excitement, I saw no viable path to a rational discussion. Rather than step clumsily into the sound-bite culture, I turned away whenever the microphones were thrust into my face. I sat it out.

Now that the election is over, I want to say as plainly as I can that the character invented to serve this drama wasn’t me, not even close. Here are the facts:

I never killed or injured anyone. I did join the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, and later resisted the draft and was arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. I became a full-time antiwar organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village. The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices — the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious — as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation.

The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be — and still is being — debated. We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war.

Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends.

I cannot imagine engaging in actions of that kind today. And for the past 40 years, I’ve been teaching and writing about the unique value and potential of every human life, and the need to realize that potential through education.

I have regrets, of course — including mistakes of excess and failures of imagination, posturing and posing, inflated and heated rhetoric, blind sectarianism and a lot else. No one can reach my age with their eyes even partly open and not have hundreds of regrets. The responsibility for the risks we posed to others in some of our most extreme actions in those underground years never leaves my thoughts for long.

The antiwar movement in all its commitment, all its sacrifice and determination, could not stop the violence unleashed against Vietnam. And therein lies cause for real regret.

We — the broad “we” — wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at induction centers, surrounded the Pentagon and lay down in front of troop trains. Yet we were inadequate to end the killing of three million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans during a 10-year war.

The dishonesty of the narrative about Mr. Obama during the campaign went a step further with its assumption that if you can place two people in the same room at the same time, or if you can show that they held a conversation, shared a cup of coffee, took the bus downtown together or had any of a thousand other associations, then you have demonstrated that they share ideas, policies, outlook, influences and, especially, responsibility for each other’s behavior. There is a long and sad history of guilt by association in our political culture, and at crucial times we’ve been unable to rise above it.

President-elect Obama and I sat on a board together; we lived in the same diverse and yet close-knit community; we sometimes passed in the bookstore. We didn’t pal around, and I had nothing to do with his positions. I knew him as well as thousands of others did, and like millions of others, I wish I knew him better.

Demonization, guilt by association, and the politics of fear did not triumph, not this time. Let’s hope they never will again. And let’s hope we might now assert that in our wildly diverse society, talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue.