Watch Words, 2007










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Watch Words (September, 2007)
What Does Sex Drive?
 

Facing The New Wave
As a college freshman, I took a Behavioral Sciences course in human sexuality. In the class's waning weeks, everyone had to give a presentation, based on something they'd learned or researched pertaining to the course topic. The assignment was very open ended, and those who didn't want to present were allowed to write a paper instead.

There was a young man in the class, with short blonde hair very neatly combed (perhaps a strand or three grazing the tops of his ears), usually sporting a blue jean shirt so impeccably tidy it might have been starched, and wire-frame glasses. He was altogether very clean looking in a peculiar "I'm hip too" kind of way. My mom would have deemed him "nicely groomed." From speaking with him, I learned he was a devout Christian who put his faith at the center of his life. I'd known "Jesus freaks" on the beach from my high school days in South Florida, but those sweet-faced pamphlet-bearing teens were not in this boy's league.

There was a pop song on the radio around this time called "Afternoon Delight," which was about having sex in the afternoon. It had a catchy hook and twinkling harmonies, with an unapologetically syrupy melody and lyric; it was essentially a bubblegum song about sex, light as whipped cream.

My well-groomed classmate, however, did not find it palatable. His report to the class was on the evils of sexually suggestive pop lyrics. I will never forget the rich disgust in his voice, nor the contemptuous curl of his lip, as he spat the words of the song's chorus: "Skyrockets in flight." (Snort.) "Afternoon delight." To hear his voice you'd think he'd stepped in a dog turd. "Sure--anything goes as long as your parents are out of the house," he concluded dryly, nailing his point home.

I'd never seen anyone like this. It was 1976. I thought I was looking at one very unusual kid. I had no idea that what I was actually witnessing was the wave of the future.
 

Culture Wars
 
You know what happened next. Ronald Reagan was elected president four years later. The Moral Majority and the new Christian Right came into ascendance. People like my old "Afternoon Delight"-abhorring classmate were vindicated; in a very real sense, they took over. Their values became a dominant force in our body politic.

Political scientist and linguist George Lakoff talks about the difference between leftist and rightist values in this country as being essentially a metaphor for a "strict parent" model of governance, vs. a more lenient "nurturant parent" model. Hence, with the right in power, we have more money and resources devoted to our military (and more war), and a much thinner social safety net. People should take care of themselves, declares the stern parent. And if they can't, they ought to be punished. In his books, like Moral Politics, Lakoff details how these values play out in policy decisions.

But Lakoff speaks seldom, if at all, about sex. I think, if you scratch the surface, much of our cultural and political debate comes down to sex. For example, the Right's now-familiar rallying cry of putting an end to "abortion on demand" is really about trying to put an end to people having sex whenever they want to, or at least about making people "pay the consequences" of sex.

Here's a polarizing statement for you: I don't believe the pro-life position is, at its psychological core, about saving babies. If it were about saving babies, the pro-lifers would all be adopting like crazy, instead of just terrorizing and tormenting already-freaked-out young women at the entrances to abortion clinics. (I can imagine my old classmate from the Human Sexuality class--by then in his twenties--at one of those prolific anti-abortion demonstrations in the 1980s, jeering contemptuously, "See this is where 'afternoon delight' gets you!")

 
Fast Forward
 
The thing that struck me most about the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal wasn't that the country became fanatically obsessed with it, nor that the president had cheated on his wife, nor that it actually hampered Clinton's political agenda at the time, nor even that it was probably what cost Al Gore the 2000 election. It wasn't surprising to me that the Republicans impeached Clinton for lying under oath about his sex life. It was an issue, they knew, which the public could understand, and it had a straightforward moral and legal narrative. President betrays wife, lies to country. Evil man! President lies under oath. The law is the law!

But what struck me most about the whole thing was how cruel the country was to Monica Lewinsky. It was as if the entire United States had become one big insular, mean-spirited junior high school. The news pundits, the late-night comedians, the joking and bantering about of her name as it seeped through popular culture . . .  all of it was merciless. I had never, in my lifetime, seen a person singled out for such humiliation.

At the time, I wondered if Monica Lewinsky actually held more power than she could have even dreamed. How she could have held a mirror up to our culture! Had she fully grasped the peculiar way she was being scapegoated, and what that signified about the rest of us, ooh, she might have hurt back! For a brief moment in time, I think, if Monica had spoken out, she would have commanded everyone's full attention in a way that was beyond the power of presidents.

But instead, sex was merely enlisted yet again as the ultimate indictment of liberalism, (insofar as Clinton was a relative liberal). The lies of our current president have far more real-world impact, of course, but they don't capture, much less hold, the public imagination with anything close to the power of sex. Few of us know what it feels like to tell lies that have deadly consequences for thousands of people, but most of us have told some lie, at some point, about sex, so we know that feels like--and that's the story we naturally follow. I find myself wondering to what extent, on a subconscious level, the current candidacy of Senator Hillary Clinton is popularly viewed as a continuation of that story.


What?!
 

After sharing the foregoing statement with my wife, I hastily concluded that though this Watch Words is getting rather lengthy, perhaps I had better clarify what I just meant.

Consider: There are a number of arguably plausible ways in which to frame the story of Hillary Rodham Clinton--different prisms, if you will, through which to view this public person.

Here's one: Hillary Clinton, formerly Hillary Rodham, has been a singularly powerful, brilliant individual her whole life. The trajectory of her remarkable career began long before most of us ever heard of her. She was already politically active way back in her college days at Wellesley. She has always cared passionately about issues that affect people. When she and Bill Clinton married, they became a power couple, destined to make history together. Senator Clinton honed and deepened her political skills and insights through her two terms as First Lady, followed by six-plus years in the United States Senate.

Here's another story: When First Lady Hillary Clinton headed President Bill Clinton's health care reform team in 1993 (she actually began working on it '92, before her husband was even inaugurated), she reached out to every stakeholder imaginable, and worked demoniacally hard. At first, she received rave reviews: her command of healthcare-related issues was unsurpassed if not unparalleled, and she assembled a first-class team of intellectuals and experts to craft the Clinton health care plan for universal coverage of all Americans. Yet, in the end, Hillary and her health care initiative bombed dismally. It never even came to a vote in Congress, despite the fact that the president's own party held a majority in both houses at the time.

Hillary had fought the good fight for universal health care, but the propaganda of the right wing destroyed her, with their commercials about how the Clinton health care plan would deprive citizens of the right to choose their own doctors and other such malignant distortions. In the end, all Hillary "earned" from her Herculean efforts were negative poll numbers and a widely held perception that she was a meddling, liberal megalomaniac who had no idea what she was doing. Then, adding injury to insult, Republicans took over Congress in 1994, in no small part because they had successfully skewered and tarred and feathered the "liberal" Clinton health plan.

Today, Senator Hillary Clinton is the lone Democrat among the "top tier" presidential candidates (the "top tier" consisting of Senator Clinton, Barack  Obama, and John Edwards) who has not put forth a detailed, comprehensive health care plan. Hillary now states blithely that you can have the best plan in the world, but first you have to build consensus, and therefore she can't be specific yet. But in the meantime, she accepts enormous campaign contributions from HMOs, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance conglomerates--the very entities that funded the misinformation campaign which derailed her 1990s healthcare efforts.

So what does all this say about Hillary Clinton? Has she sold out? Or is she going to take these people's money and yet be guided by her "best angels" once she's in office? Is she merely power hungry and cynical today? Or is her heart really in the right place, except that she now knows better how to "play the system"?

But wait, here's one more story. Hillary Clinton was betrayed, in a tawdry and public manner, by her philandering husband. In 1992, she had stood valiantly by his side when Gennifer Flowers went public about her longstanding affair with Bill Clinton. Then in 1998, Hillary was rewarded for her wifely loyalty with another, even worse slap in the face when her husband's affair with a young intern was revealed.

Yet Hillary bounced back from this terrible indignity not only by maintaining her poise, but actually capturing a U.S. Senate seat two years later. She has shown the nation that a woman exposed to public ridicule because of the actions of her sexually wayward husband can rise above all that and reclaim her power. Becoming president would be her ultimate vindication. Perhaps women all over America who've been cheated on can take heart in Hillary's conquests.

The above stories are not mutually exclusive, of course. But which of the three do you suppose resonates most vibrantly in the hearts and minds of most Americans today?

How many Americans know that Hillary Clinton was president of her student body at Wellesley College (or even that she went there)?  What percentage of Americans remember Hillary's healthcare debacle? By contrast, how large a segment of the American public still has fresh memories of the Lewinsky scandal?

Here's a little clue (I believe). I watched PBS coverage of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Hillary gave a speech. Between the time Senator Clinton was introduced to the crowd and her arrival at the podium microphone, the PBS commentators continued their hushed voiceover conversation for the benefit of their sizable viewing/listening audience across the United States. I don't recall exactly what they were talking about, but I remember distinctly the last two words Jim Lehrer uttered, immediately before Hillary opened her mouth to begin her speech. Those two words were "Gennifer Flowers."

 I don't think anyone would argue that Jim Lehrer is a member of a "right-wing conspiracy." Yet, apparently, he is among those in thrall to the topic of sex.

So: If Senator Clinton gets her party's nomination in 2008, and the words "Monica Lewinsky" start making their appearance again in the press more than you'd suppose is entirely necessary, remember who first warned you that might happen.

To Be Continued . . . maybe.

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 
Send 'em on! Respond to marcwordsmith@comcast.net. (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (August, 2007)

Of Cynicism and Stars

Starlight from the Past
 
When I was 18, living in South Florida, there was a wonderful five-minute TV show on in the wee hours of the night called Star Hustler, broadcast from a small obscure local UHF channel. When I first saw the show's title in the TV listings, I imagined an intergalactic traveling salesman. (I'd read a lot of science fiction. Today, I'd probably picture a Hollywood pimp.)

I pretty much had it right. Each show was a mini-astronomy lesson, or a spirited report about what to look for in the coming week's night sky, presented by a peppery man with a dark mustache, wide piercing eyes, and an unflaggingly exuberant voice. I could practically see the exclamation points leaping off the ends of his sentences, as his eyebrows and mustache swam up, down, and sideways in a symphony of other-worldly enthusiasm. His graphics weren't bad either, given late seventies technology. He began and ended each show with theme music, "Arabesque #1" from Debussy's Snowflakes Are Dancing--as rendered by the whimsical synthesizer artist, Tomita. He concluded every program with the same cheerful injunction to his viewers: "Keep looking  up!"

Though I loved that little show, I forgot all about it for decades, until the other day, when--to my amazement--I saw the end of an episode crop up on a cable PBS channel. I couldn't believe it! There was the same guy, same mustache, same tone of voice, same hyper-enthused wonder, only it was current! It was about events in the stars this week!

I had been sure it was only a local Florida program on a tiny TV station. And I was right, as I discovered an hour or so later on the internet. Jack Horkheimer's Star Hustler program was broadcast out of Miami, and it did begin in the seventies in Florida, but since then it's been nationally syndicated, and Dr. Horkheimer, Executive Director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, is now world famous. His show is broadcast on most PBS stations across the country, as well as internationally via satellite, the Armed Services Network, NASA C.O.R.E., and USIA WORLDNET. Horkheimer has appeared as a guest on the ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, and BBC networks; he has been interviewed by Larry King, Giraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, and others. His press releases on astonomical events are published all over the world.


Names and Fuzzy Logic
 

In the seventies, the show always began with this voiceover introduction:

Some people hustle pool,
Some people hustle cars,
Then there's that man you've heard about,
The one who hustles stars . . .
Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler!

But the show is now called Star Gazer, not Star Hustler anymore. This is because of the internet. When the show's web site went online in the late nineties, and kids would search for it, inevitably the word "hustler" called up a million porn sites. The world of the internet is apparently much more reflective of what my immediate associations with "star hustler" would be today (Hollywood pimp) rather than the more accurate association generated in my less-jaded 18-year-old mind.

I have to wonder, were those more innocent times, generally speaking? Not that most people think of the late seventies as a particularly innocent era--it was post 1960s, after all--but casual internet surfing can make a cynic of anyone, I'm afraid.

For example: After catching a glimpse of my old spaceman friend on the tube, I was determined to find out who he was and when his show would be on again. So I went to the Comcast TV listings page on the internet and scrolled around. Having forgotten the show's name, I was certain I'd recognize it once I saw it, but I couldn't find it in the listings. I knew the word "star" was in it, so I typed "star" in the search field at the top of the listings and of course I got "Star Trek" and "Rock Star" and "Superstar" and "All-Stars" and so forth, but not the show title I was looking for. So then I typed the word "astronomy" into the search field.

No matches. "We could not find any search results for 'astronomy'" the screen informed me. And atop that, the question, "Did you mean: bathroom?"

I kid you not. If you don't believe me, go to comcast.net, click the "TV" link on the left and then "TV listings," and when your local listings appear onscreen, do a search on "astronomy." I'm sure it will "work" for you too.

I think this must be why: The letters a, t, r, o, and m, all appear--in the same order--both in the word "astronomy" and the word "bathroom." And "bathroom," I suppose, must be a common search term.
 
 

The Spoiler Headline
 
I'm not sure if random internet events like this tell me something about modern American culture, or merely about what major media outlets believe and perceive in our culture.

Here's another example. I've read every Harry Potter book, and I think people who give away endings or plot details--pertaining to Harry Potter or any other unread story--should be sentenced after death to a special killjoy purgatory. So naturally I was careful, in the weeks preceding the release of Book 7, to avoid any reviews of the new book.

However, I do look at the front page of the New York Times every day. A couple of weeks ago, to my dismay, the front page headline which displayed the title of the Times's Harry Potter book review--not the review itself, mind you, but merely the title of the review, trumpeting from the front page in prominent hyperlink colors--gave away essential information about the story to my un-forewarned eyes. A slight and unavoidable bit of inference was all that was required to spoil part of the story after I unwittingly consumed that bite-sized chunk of glowing text.

Since you may not have finished the book yet, I wouldn't dream of reprinting that review title here. But if you're curious, go ahead and google "New York Times Harry Potter book review."

So I wonder: Did the Times assume that none of its readers would care about knowing what happens in the book they hadn't read yet (remember: this review appeared before the book was released), or did the Times assume that none (or very few) of its readers would be able to glean spoiler-quality information from its blatantly revealing headline?

Either way, I say: cynical, cynical.
 
 

The Final Word
 
Meanwhile, I have been having a blast learning more about my old buddy Jack Horkeimer. (Judging by all I've read, he'd probably be tickled, not affronted in the least, that I see him as an old pal.) He has received many national and international science awards; he organized the first supersonic chase after Haley's Comet aboard four Concorde airplanes; he's narrated coverage of several eclipses for CNN; he's the main character of a monthly comic strip in Odyssey magazine; and he's had an asteroid named after him.

According to an associate, Dr. Fiorella Terenzi, "Working with Dr. Jack Foley Horkheimer was one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had. Dr. Horkheimer is knowledgeable, gracious, creative, enthusiastic, and, well, you get the idea."

He's even written his own epitaph:

Keep Looking Up!
Was my life's admonition;
I can do little else
In my present position.

You gotta love the guy.

Here's his web site: www.jackstargazer.com.

And on this page you can watch episodes of his show for free.
 

Back Words: A Few Magic Ones
 
Thanks to everyone who responded to the last Watch Words, especially those who answered my call for "magic words of wisdom that might supersede my anxieties about death, aging, illness, pain, poverty, global warming, political chaos, and personal inadequacy."

Here are a few of the potent words I received:

This too shall pass.

100 years, all new people!

I see you. I hear you. I love you.
 

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 
Send 'em on! Respond to marcwordsmith@comcast.net. (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (July, 2007)

Say the Word and You'll Be Free

Magic Words
 
The first magic words I remember were "Open Sesame" from the tale of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," which my mother read to me when I was little. Magic words have a venerable history in literature and religion. In stories and folk tales, words command supernatural powers. And according to various spiritual traditions, words can allegedly absolve you of sins, purify your mind, and improve your karma.

The Beatles--the defacto channels of divine truth in my young life--sang about magic words. In the lyrics of the song "The Word," (from which the title of this installment of Watch Words is lifted), they declared that it all boils down to just the word "love," which can free you. "Say the word and you'll be free . . . It's so fine/It's sunshine/It's the word love."

George Harrison took a slightly more traditional approach on his album All Things Must Pass. In "Awaiting on You All" he ebulliently advised "chanting the names of the Lord and you'll be free." And in "My Sweet Lord" he modeled the activity for us, alternating "Hallelujah" with "Hare Krishna," which seemed to signal that it didn't matter which particular name of the Lord you chanted, so long as you picked one. He sounded pretty free himself to me; I found it convincing.

But when I met the actual Hare Krishnas, they were nothing like George Harrison. They seemed downright tense as they repeated, staccato-style, "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare!" Once, I couldn't help but stare at one of them. Seeing me, he flashed a sardonic grimace as he pursued his bliss.


Real Magic
 

The president of the United States can really wield magic words. Scooter Libby, Vice-President Cheney's former chief of staff, was convicted on four felony counts of obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI and to a grand jury. He was sentenced to thirty months in prison (and to a fine and probation). Yesterday, Bush commuted Libby's prison sentence to zero, stating that the penalty was "excessive."

Just like that, Libby is free.

Today I got on the Internet, looking for some magic words of my own--words that might make me feel better. Perhaps if enough other people shared my outrage, I'd feel less vulnerable to the flagrant abuses of the Bush Administration, the flamboyant "we'll-do-whatever-the-hell-we-want-to-because-we-can" attitude of this White House.

Not surprisingly, I did find plenty of company out there. Pretty much every op-ed writer in the known universe has checked in, much more eloquently and scathingly than I ever could. The New York Times blog alone already shows over 1,000 reader comments about the Libby story, which are breaking about 9 to 1 in disgust and rage against Bush.

Somehow, though, I am not getting the magic I need from all this.
 

Some Perspective
 
Stepping back a minute, though, I remember that Libby was just the fall guy.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this (in case you've forgotten): In July, 2003, former US Ambassador Joe Wilson published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that accused the Bush Administration of lies and distortions in its justifications for war with Iraq. The piece was entitled "What I Didn't Find in Africa." It was particularly credible and convincing because Wilson was an experienced diplomat who had spent time on the ground investigating Bush's claim that Iraq had purchased radioactive yellowcake from Niger to make nuclear bombs.

In retaliation against Wilson for publishing "What I Didn't Find in Africa," someone in the White House leaked to the press that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative. This leak placed Plame in danger, and abruptly ended her career in the field. The leak was also a felony, a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Scooter Libby did not commit the leak. He merely knew of it, and was somehow caught having known of it and subsequently denying that knowledge to a grand jury and the FBI. So Libby became the one guy who could be successfully prosecuted--not for the original crime, but for trying to conceal it.

Nobody went to trial, much less to jail, for the leak itself. The independent prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, couldn't pin the leak on anyone, but he could nail Libby for obstruction of justice. This is the magic of our legal system.

So in a sense, the prosecution of Libby was symbolic--symbolic of the notion that someone should face some consequences for the Plame leak, which was, after all, a high-level federal crime.

Libby was certainly guilty as charged. But do I really care about this one man--this patsy for Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the president himself--the criminals and liars who actually engineered and authorized the leak (and who lied continuously to the nation)? Do I really mind so much that this second-tier Bushie thug is not going to have to suffer prison?

No, not really.

But that's not the point either. What rankles is that the magic words of a lawless president can so easily supersede our creaky, cranky (and uneven) mechanisms of legal justice.
 

Still Searching
 
Meanwhile, I'm still looking for the magic words of wisdom that might supersede my anxieties about death, aging, illness, pain, poverty, global warming, political chaos, and personal inadequacy. Not being religiously inclined, I'm afraid "Hare Krishna" and "Praise the Lord" won't do it for me. Nor will a presidential pardon (which I'm not likely to see anyway).

Nick Drake sang "Your tears they tell me/There's really no way/Of ending your troubles/With things you can say."

Maybe not, Nick, but I'll keep trying.

And if I find any magic words, I promise to share them.

And hey, if you know any, please pass them along.
 

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 
Send 'em on! Respond to marcwordsmith@comcast.net. (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (June, 2007)

An Open Letter to Senate Democrats

In light of last week's war appropriations bill vote, I emailed the following letter to each of the Democratic senators who voted "yes" on new funding for the Iraq War.
 

Dear Senator _____,

Please dispel my confusion if you can.

As a lifelong Democrat, I rejoiced when my party took back the Congress last fall. And like millions of other American Democrats, I was bewildered and distressed by the Senate and House votes last week, extending an additional $120 billion of funding for the Iraq War and giving George W. Bush precisely what he wants, with no timetables for withdrawal.

The rationale we have heard is that, so long as our troops are in harm's way, you have to provide them with the resources that they need. But this is clearly nonsense. If you cut off funding, the president will simply have to withdraw the troops. Even this president is not likely to leave troops in the field with no provisions.

Besides, if seeing to the needs of the troops was truly a paramount concern, there would be much more effort to do so state-side, when troops come home battered and wounded. The name of Walter Reid Hospital would be on lawmakers' lips every day, and senators would be introducing emergency billion-dollar funding bills to pay for the needs of injured vets and their families.

So we know that "supporting the troops" is not the reason that 37 Democratic senators voted to renew war appropriations last week. This justification is patently false. Furthermore, it does not really fool anyone, though it confuses many of us.

I understand there may have been other valid reasons to vote for the appropriations. If the troops are abruptly withdrawn, then violence and mayhem in Iraq is likely to spin even farther out of control than it is already. The precariously perched Iraqi government could fall apart, and the country could descend into complete chaos. And if there is a civil war, the violence could spread throughout the region.

So then, I would like to ask you plainly: Do you believe that keeping the troops in Iraq a little longer might avert the worst of possible outcomes? Is Iraq going to become more stable by, say, March of 2008?

Do you fear that it is impolitic to talk much about the well-being of Iraqis, or the stability of a region far from home? There was a joke making the rounds of the Internet that goes like this: A man walks into a Washington bar and sees President Bush there sitting with Colin Powell. He walks up to them and Bush says "Hello, we're planning World War III. We're going to kill ten million Iraqis and one bicycle repair person." The man asks in astonishment, "Why would you want to kill a bicycle repair person??" Bush turns to Powell and says, "You see? I told you no one would worry about the ten million Iraqis."

This is--supposedly--a joke, but is this what Democratic senators think too? That you cannot talk to your constituents about the welfare of Iraqis, for fear of losing our sympathy or interest?

Forty-seven Senate Democrats voted on last week's appropriations bill. Thirty-seven voted yes, and ten voted no. So almost four-fifths of the Democrats in the U.S Senate supported the bill.

If we subtract the four Democratic senators who are currently running for president from the tally, that leaves 43 voting on the bill, 36 of whom voted yes. That is more than 80%.

Three of the four Democratic senators who are running for president voted no. But up until last week, every one of these senators has voted in favor of Iraq War appropriations each time they had an opportunity to do so, with the same justification that 37 Democratic senators offered us last week: They were compelled to support our troops in the field.

There is something transparently bogus about all of this. 80% of Democrats vote yes. 75% of Democrats who are running for president vote no. What does this mean? It must mean something. Can you explain it?

Why a timetable anyway? If the war is a wholesale disaster, if there is no point to staying in and trying to win, why not withdraw troops immediately? President Bush, odious as he may be, makes an undeniable point when he states that setting timetables is no way to wage a war. And when he says this, he looks like he at least has a conviction about something.

Democrats, now as ever, do not look like they believe in anything. They talk tough for five months or so about reining in the president, and then they cave in. They do not explain their logic about timetables or anything else. They offer half-hearted excuses about needing to support the troops.

Over the last week, Congressional Democrats have been getting collectively blasted for their lack of moral and political courage. Not only ordinary citizens, not only pundits of the news media, but even some of your own colleagues such as Senators Feingold and Kerry have publicly excoriated you for your weakness and lack of resolve. Yet, you must have known that your "yes" vote would not increase your popularity. The presidential candidates of your party certainly had this figured out; I imagine you are at least as discerning as they about public sentiment.

So why not do something really brave? Give us the straight dope. What are you really thinking?

Even staunch liberals like Tom Harkin and Maria Cantwell voted yes on this bill. There has got to be something you all are not telling us. That is the only explanation I can think of.

I commented to a friend the other day that one of the most horrible things about the war appropriations vote is that our legislators give us canned, artificial reasoning for what they do, and refuse to ever speak to us as adults. My friend laughed. "As opposed to another time when our elected officials did speak to us as adults?" He had a point, but this is a new century, and a perhaps a new era in politics.

So why not let us in on it? What do you have to lose? Everyone sees that the Democrats have not been forthright. This will hurt our party in the next election, unless you do something dramatic to reverse the widespread perception of Democrats as ineffectual and wishy-washy.

Take a chance. Tell it like it is this time. Just this once, enfranchise your voters and invite us into the real debate.

Thanks for your consideration.
 

Back Words: Candidate Kucinich
 
My friend, health guru Jon Cotton (totalhealthsecrets.com) had the following response to last month's Watch Words, "Ducking Impossible Questions":
 
And of course Kucinich continues to be marginalized and ignored despite the fact he has the most direct, honest, pragmatic and intelligent answers to the issues, and points out where all the other candidates are still part of the problem . . .


Thanks, Jon. I'm afraid I ignored Dennis Kucinich too in my analysis last month of candidates' squirrelly answers to debate questions. The reason was that I could find no examples of Kucinich equivocating or ducking questions.
 

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 
Send 'em on! Respond to marcwordsmith@comcast.net. (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (May, 2007)

Ducking Impossible Questions


Politicians are notorious for ducking direct questions, and providing answers to questions that were not actually asked.

Less noted is that reporters love to pose questions that seem calculated not to elicit information, but rather to measure how deftly politicians can squirm out of rhetorical tight spots.

Right Out the Gate
The first impossible question of last week's Democratic presidential debate at South Carolina State University was the opener:
Moderator Brian Williams: Let's now begin the questioning. Senator Clinton, your party's leader in the United States Senate, Harry Reid, recently said the war in Iraq is lost. A letter to today's USA Today calls his comments "treasonous" and says if General Patton were alive today, Patton would "wipe his boots" with Senator Reid. Do you agree with the position of your leader in the Senate?
What do you say if you are Senator Clinton? If you support Reid's statement, you may be deemed defeatist and unpatriotic. Agreeing that the war is "lost" can easily be construed as denigrating the valor and bravery of America's military, and compromising the prestige of American itself.

But suggesting that the war is not lost might make it difficult to justify the Democratic plan of setting a timetable to bring the troops home before the war is "finished." Furthermore, if you repudiate Reid's statement in any way, you will be seen as opportunistic and disloyal to your party's leader.

So Senator Clinton took a middle path:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Well, Brian, at the outset, let me say that the American people have spoken. The Congress has voted, as of today, to end this war. And now we can only hope that the president will listen. I'm very proud of the Congress under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid for putting together a piece of legislation which says we will fund our troops and protect them, we will limit the number of days that they can be deployed, and we will start to bring them home. And I think that is exactly what the American people want. This is not America's war to win or lose. We have given the Iraqi people the chance to have freedom, to have their own country. It is up to them to decide whether or not they're going to take that chance.
One could argue that saying "This is not America's war to win or lose." is a bit disingenuous, given that we started the war. Nonetheless, Senator Clinton did not avoid Williams' question altogether. Nestled in her statement is some semblance of an answer to the question of whether or not the war is lost--namely, it's not really our war, and the answer to that question is up to the Iraqis.

In my view, Senator Biden neutralized the question more efficiently:

Brian Williams: Senator Biden, same question to you, which is: Do you agree with Senator Reid that the war is lost?

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.: Look, Brian, this is not a game show. You know, this is not a football game. This is not win or lose. The fact of the matter is that the president has a fundamentally flawed policy. It's based upon the notion of being able to set a strong, central government in Baghdad that will be democratic. And the real question is: Are we going to be able to leave Iraq, get our troops out, and leave behind something other than chaos?

 
Senator Biden says, in effect, "You are asking the wrong question. That question does not coherently address the heart of the matter."
Regular People Do It Too
It's not just the reporters that pose the poison-tipped questions. David Stanton was the news correspondent at the debate who presented candidates with questions selected from viewer emails.
David Stanton: This is for Senator Obama. Senator, Marsha from here in Orangeburg in South Carolina says, "As a spouse of a 19-year active duty professional soldier, who has served in Iraq and worldwide in numerous deployments, what would you consider to be a 'mission complete' status in Iraq?"
In other words, what would "victory" look like?

(Note that she is not asking: "When would you bring my husband home if you were president?")

Senator Obama answered at length and ducked the question completely:

Sen. Barack Obama: Well, first of all, I want to thank Marsha's husband for his service. And one of the enormous difficulties of this war has been the strain it's placed on our men and women in uniform. We have seen our Army and our Reserves and our National Guard all being stretched to a breaking point. And that's one of the reasons why I proposed that we're going to have to increase the size of our ground forces, so we can stop the sort of rotations that we've been placing them on, which have been putting enormous strain not only on the soldiers themselves, but also their families. But, look, we are one vote away -- we are one signature away or 16 votes away from ending this war. One signature away. Now, if the president is not going to sign the bill that has been sent to him, then what we have to do is gather up 16 votes in order to override his veto. And I think that the men and women in uniform have performed valiantly in terms of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and giving the Iraqi people an opportunity to bring their country together.

Brian Williams: Time.

Obama: But what we can't do is expect that we can continue to impose a military solution on what is essentially a political problem, and that's what we have to organize around.
 

One wonders: Did Senator Obama simply miss the thrust of the actual question?

One could argue that it was not altogether fair of Marsha to pose her question to Senator Obama, of all people, since he opposed the war from its inception. Then again, Senator Obama has voted in favor of war appropriations since he has been in the Senate because, as he explains, "If we're going to send hundreds of thousands of our young men and women there, then they have to have the night-vision goggles, the Humvees that are reinforced, and the other equipment that they need to make sure that they come home safely."


Did He Answer or Not? You Decide.

One common type of impossible question insists that the answer be framed in terms of simplistic categories. "Is the war lost or not?" might be considered such a question.
The following is certainly an example of such a question:
Brian Williams: Senator Edwards, Russia has been in the news of late. Just today, they suspended an arms deal over a squabble. Simply, do you regard them as a friend or a foe?

Former Sen. John Edwards: Well, what's happened in Russia, of course, is they've moved from being a democracy under Yeltsin to being a complete autocracy under Putin. The government has been centralized. Any kind of democratic effort, any opposition party, any opposition voice has been squashed. I think the question we should be asking ourselves . . . is how does America change the underlying dynamic of what's happening in the world? We need to maintain our strength, military, economic, political. But how do we ultimately change what's happening, the threats that America faces? I think for that to occur, the world has to see America as a force for good again, which is why I talked about making -- leading an effort to make primary school education available to 100 million children in the world who don't have it, in the Muslim world, in Africa, in Latin America. Leading an international effort on sanitation, clean drinking water, economic development using microfinance as a tool. I mean, here's a way that America could actually demonstrate its commitment to humanity, which I think is critical for our leadership.

 
Senator Edwards does not come right out and say, "That's an overly simplistic question." Instead, tenaciously positive, he names the question that he feels "we should be asking" and he answers that question instead. In the space of sixty seconds, Senator Edwards manages to segue from Russia to Africa and Latin America, from authoritarian oppression in a modern nation-state to the need for sanitation and clean drinking water in the developing world.

Arguably, his answer did address the "friend or foe" issue, in that it implied such categories are neither useful nor particularly pertinent in formulating a comprehensive foreign policy.

I'll tip my hand here. I liked his answer.
(Directness is refreshing when it's feasible, but I understand and accept that it isn't always.)

Provocative But Not Impossible
Some questions are just hard, but they're not impossible. Whether or not they are fair is another issue altogether.

It seems to me that the following question posed to Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut had the potential of opening up a reflective discussion that could have rippled out beyond the confines of the debate--had Dodd chosen to answer it.

Brian Williams: Senator Dodd, the state of Connecticut has legalized civil unions for gay people. Tell me, is there a difference between gay marriage and civil unions?

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd: Well, I always begin this question, Brian, by asking people to consider what they would do in the case of their own children. I have two very young daughters who one day may have a different sexual orientation than their parents. How would I like them treated as adults? What kind of housing, what kind of homes, what kind of jobs, what kind of retirement would they be allowed to have? I think if you ask yourself that question, you come to the conclusion that I hope most Americans would: that they ought to be able to have those loving relationships sanctioned. I'm proud of the fact that my state has done so. I'm proud of the fact that Governor Lynch in New Hampshire is going to sign legislation which makes that possible. I believe that civil unions are appropriate and proper. I don't support same-sex marriage. And the distinction there I think is one of more of what's available, what the traditions are, and the -- over the years. But, basically, that's a distinction I make. Strongly support those civil unions.

 
Toward the end of his statement, Senator Dodd offers a spectacularly faint-hearted non-answer to the original question: "And the distinction there I think is one of more of what's available, what the traditions are, and the -- over the years."

If this is the extent of Dodd's conception of the difference between a marriage and a civil union, it seems a rather wobbly platform for his sharply articulated stand on the issue: "I believe the civil unions are appropriate and proper. I don't support same-sex marriage."

But Dodd apparently accomplished his aim. He presented himself as tolerant and compassionate toward gay people--and just bigoted enough to (possibly) satisfy the homophobic mainstream.


He Who Hesitates . . .
 

No discussion of last week's debate would be complete without at least a cursory examination of its most publicized moments.

In the wake of the debate, the pundits on MSNBC, including Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, all spoke at length about how in (what they deemed to be) the debate's crucial moment--in response to a question about a hypothetical terrorist attack--Senator Obama seemed hesitant and unsure of himself, whereas Senator Clinton appeared strong, clear, forthright, and presidential. These "expert" commentators unanimously awarded the point (and therefore, by implication, the entire debate) to Senator Clinton.

Style points, voice tones, and body language aside, let's look at what actually got said:
 

Brian Williams: Senator Obama, if, God forbid a thousand times, while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities have been hit simultaneously by terrorists and we further learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt it had been the work of Al Qaida, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?

Obama: Well, the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans. And I think that we have to review how we operate in the event of not only a natural disaster, but also a terrorist attack. The second thing is to make sure that we've got good intelligence, a., to find out that we don't have other threats and attacks potentially out there, and b., to find out, do we have any intelligence on who might have carried it out so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network. But what we can't do is then alienate the world community based on faulty intelligence, based on bluster and bombast. Instead, the next thing we would have to do, in addition to talking to the American people, is making sure that we are talking to the international community. Because as already been stated, we're not going to defeat terrorists on our own. We've got to strengthen our intelligence relationships with them, and they've got to feel a stake in our security by recognizing that we have mutual security interests at stake.
 


Little slip of the tongue there, I think. When Obama says "We've got to strengthen our intelligence relationships with them," it sounds, semantically, as if he's talking about strengthening relations with the terrorists. What he really meant, obviously, was that we need to strengthen our relationships with other nations ("the international community") who can aid us in rooting out terrorism.

Apart from that, Senator Obama's answer also focused on beefing up our emergency response systems, preventing further damage from subsequent threats, and refraining from taking military actions that will quickly alienate the rest of the world.

Now let's look at what the more "presidential" Senator Clinton had to say:
Brian Wilson: Senator Clinton, same question.

Clinton: Well, again, having been a senator during 9/11, I understand very well the extraordinary horror of that kind of an attack and the impact that it has, far beyond those that are directly affected. I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate. If we are attacked, and we can determine who is behind that attack, and if there are nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond. Now, that doesn't mean we go looking for other fights. You know, I supported President Bush when he went after Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And then when he decided to divert attention to Iraq, it was not a decision that I would have made, had I been president, because we still haven't found bin Laden. So let's focus on those who have attacked us and do everything we can to destroy them.
 

Clinton cuts to the chase and, in essence, assures the public, "If I were president, I'd hit back hard and fast."

She tempers her statement somewhat by acknowledging that the Iraq war "divert[ed] attention" from the retaliatory task at hand after 9/11, but she wraps up her answer forcefully: " ... do everything we can to destroy them."

If the pundits are correct, this--and only this--is the kind of reassurance that Americans need and crave. If we're hit, we will strike back massively.

None of this dithering and dallying over namby-pamby side issues such as fortifying emergency response, minimizing harm to our citizens, or cultivating dependable relationships with other countries and their intelligence agencies.

Wow.


What Can We Expect?

Maybe it's just a vicious cycle. Politicians have gotten so adept at ducking questions over the years that reporters are forced to go after them in ways calculated to induce gaffes, or at least make them uncomfortable. Perhaps the reasoning goes: If elected, they will be subjected to terrible pressures of varying kinds. Let's see how they stand up to this pressure.

Conversely, TV and radio have so completely turned elections into battles of sound bites and stereotypes that perhaps candidates have no choice but to provide canned statements, targeted at eliciting focus-group-determined emotional responses.

How do we break this cycle of steady deterioration of our national electoral process? The way I begin is by trying to pay ever closer attention to the words.


Back Words: Concerning Old Letters
 

In typical April Fool fashion, I read a quote appropriate to last month's Watch Words ("Memory Packrat") the very afternoon after the morning I sent the email out (that is, April 1).

Remember the discussion about the box of old letters and cards in my closet? Here's what one of Haruki Murakami's characters had to say on the subject, in the novel Norwegian Wood:

"Letters are just pieces of paper. Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish."

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Watch Words (April, 2007)

Memory Packrat

Since the theme of the day is fools and foolishness, I'll disclose that I am a memory packrat.
The Computer Analogy
 
Computers offer a good analogy to the human brain. Computers have two types of memory: "random access memory (or RAM)" and "storage memory."

RAM is how much information a computer can "call to mind" and work with simultaneously. (That is, how many applications and/or files a computer can keep open at the same time.) Storage memory refers to all of the files and documents and applications and so forth that the computer keeps on its hard drive.

I think people are similar. We can only process so much information--focus on so many thoughts or tasks--at once. (That's our RAM.) We can't think about everything we know at the same time. But we have millions of "files" in our heads. (That's our storage memory.)

I have always been told I have a strong memory. Friends and family have said, "I'm so glad I have you to remember my past for me!" I remember incidents in detail, from years and years ago, that the other people involved may only retain vague traces of, if anything at all. That's just the way I'm hardwired. I can't help having a "good memory," though it's not always an asset.

But I've no excuses for my weird memory-related habits.


A Thousand Voice Tones?
 

I'm sentimental, yet I've never owned a camera. Actually, I did once, for about a week in 1986, and it broke.

The photographs I have from my past are a random bunch that people thought to give me here and there. I could never make a coherent photo album from them. They live in a couple of shoeboxes.

But some time in 1983, I hatched the idea of creating an "audio" photo album. I began to record, on a cassette tape, what I deemed to be "charismatic" or "interesting" or "historic" phone machine messages from the significant people in my life. I did it for nearly fifteen years, and collected eleven and a half 90-minute cassette tapes worth of phone messages. (You do the math; I refuse to.) I used to say, "Hey, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a voice tone is worth a thousand pictures!"

Yeah, well. About once every few years, I listen to one of the tapes for seven minutes or so, and then I get bored (and a little embarrassed). I never share them with other people. Who'd want to listen to my old phone messages? To be honest, not even I do.

I will never throw those tapes away though. Even since I stopped making them, they've been with me through three moves already. I'm sure they'll disintegrate before I'm aware of it. One day I'll open up one of their little plastic cases and just find magnetic ash.
 

The Box in the Closet
 
I'm also reluctant to throw out cards and letters.

I used to be much worse about it. I couldn't throw out any sentimental correspondence, but then the years went by, and I had piles of cards and papers in boxes in my closet. Eventually, I spent an afternoon and culled through, keeping only the "best" ones.

I've gotten better about this. Nowadays, most greeting cards and birthday cards and short notes get recycled immediately, without even a detour into the closet. But some do get "filed" in the closet, and I still deal with my "sentimental papers" the same way. They lie jumbled together in a cardboard box on the closet floor, and every so often--maybe every year or two--when the box starts to look like it's getting full, I cull through them, and select only the "truly significant ones" to keep. I do not take any pleasure in these items as I perform the sorting process. It's a chore. I glance at them quickly so I can categorize them: "This stays in the box, this I'll recycle."

I have never sifted through contents of the box just to enjoy them.

But will I ever simply throw them all away? What do you think?
 

The Memory Hologram
 
My mother is 86 and doesn't remember a lot of things. It's remarkable what she has forgotten from her own life and from mine.

When I contemplate my "files," both the physical ones and the ones in my head (not to mention the ones on my computer), it occurs to me that--like old film and cassette tapes--it is the nature of memories to grow fainter and fade away. And that's probably a good and merciful thing. Make room for the new! Dump out that old hard drive!

Yet, even a trace imprint of a memory may contain a whole world of feeling, like a hologram contains the whole of itself in every part.

My mother does not remember my best friend from high school. She cannot bring to mind an image of him, nor recall a single conversation or event having to do with him. But what she does remember is his name. His name rings a bell.

The last time I went to see my mother, she asked if I might bring my old friend around to visit too. He was unavailable, but my mother did speak with him on the phone. As they talked, her voice was animated, her face relaxed and happy, despite the fact that she'd had a stressful day and was in some physical discomfort. She seemed to have more energy than normal for this conversation, as if she were thirty years younger. She seemed to remember strongly that she had always liked this person. That was all the memory she needed, and with that, they discussed the current events of their lives.
 

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 
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Watch Words (March, 2007)

We Will Have Peace

A Corny Song
 

Twenty-one years ago today, the Great Peace March for Global Disarmament set out from Los Angeles , CA , beginning its 9-month trek across the country to Washington , DC .

Folksinger Holly Near wrote a song for the marchers, the chorus of which went:

We will have peace
We will because we must
We must because we cherish life
And believe it or not, as daring as it may seem
It is not an empty dream
To walk in a powerful path
Neither the first nor the last
Great peace march
Life is a brave and mighty march
Forever for love and for life on the great peace march.

To this day, the stridency of that lyric evokes in me a twinge of embarrassment. "Brave and mighty"? Maybe some of the 400 or so marchers were, like the dozen or so who were over 70, or the ones who came and camped across the country with their small children, or those who left lucrative jobs to go on the march, or the girl with multiple sclerosis, or the man with terminal cancer. But I had no illusions about why I was there. I didn't have a lot of hope for the future at the time, but I knew I'd enjoy the adventure.

It was a lovely experience. To this day, save for a handful of exceptions, the most significant people in my life are all people I either met on the peace march, or met through friends whom I met on the peace march. Deciding to join the march was one of the very best decisions of my life, possibly the best.
 


We're Still Here
 

In its second week, the peace march ran out of money, and the marchers were stranded in the desert just outside Barstow , CA , with scarcely any food and no fuel for the various march vehicles (storage trucks, porta-potty conveyer, water truck, etc.). The original organization that had founded the march officially folded; the man who had conceived the whole idea, a famous anti-Vietnam War organizer who was the official "head" of the organization, flew out to the desert in a helicopter and advised all the marchers to get to Barstow and catch busses home.

A number of marchers started chanting, "We're still here! We're still here!"

Some marchers did go home, but most hung tough. We received spontaneous donations of food and money from Barstow and other communities. The march staggered into a campsite in Barstow , where it stayed for about ten days, until we acquired the minimal  supplies we needed to cross the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas . The rest is history. We eventually reached Washington DC on November 15, 1986.

So here we are in 2007. Most of the peace marchers can still say "We're still here." But can we say anything else?

Do we have peace yet?
 


Ishmael's View on War
 

My godson's mother and father met on the peace march. He was born in 1990. Recently, he turned me on to the book My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Ishmael is a gorilla-philosopher who talks about (among other things) how tribal societies "worked"--that is, he deems them as having "worked" because they were sustainable for many thousands of years. One of the survival mechanisms common across different ancient tribal cultures (according to Ishmael) was a policy of "Erratic Retaliation." This meant that if another tribe attacked them, they would "give as good as they got" and retaliate. More than this, the erratic part meant that even when they were not attacked, these ancient tribes would attack each other once in a while, just to signal to neighboring tribes that they "hadn't gone soft."

These attacks were not all-out war as we know it, and did not lead to annihilation of either tribe. But they did involve, say, at least a few killings each time. To Ishmael, however, this was not such a terrible thing:

"Although the strategy of the 'Erratic Retaliator' may sound combative, it's actually a peacekeeping strategy. . . . [The tribes were] in a state of more or less constant but very low-level warfare with each other. . . . Every tribe exists in a state of perpetual readiness. And once or twice a year, every tribe will initiate a raid against one or more of its neighbors. To a person of your culture, this will seem puzzling. [You] will want to know when [they] are at last going to settle their differences and learn to live in peace. And the answer is that [they] will settle their differences and learn to live in peace as soon as mountain sheep . . . [and] . . . elephant seals learn to settle their differences and live in peace. [Their] competitive strategies mustn't be viewed as disorders . . . [or] . . . problems to be solved any more than the competitive strategies of white-footed mice, wolves, or elk . . . [T]hey're evolutionarily stable. . . . They work . . . They've been tested for millions of years . . ."

Ishmael contrasts the tradition of "Erratic Retaliation" to the horrifying devastation of modern warfare.

He also contrasts "tribal law" to the "utopian" laws that modern societies create to prevent people from misbehaving.  The laws and customs of ancient tribes, in the event of such crimes as rape and murder, were enacted to minimize the damage from such deeds, rather than punish or even prevent them. Such aggressive behavior was recognized as inevitable, given human nature--which, according to Ishmael, is not any more likely to change than the essential nature of white-footed mice, which eat their competitors' young.

I found this pretty depressing.
 
 

Neither the First Nor the Last
 
My favorite line in the Holly Near song is the humble one: "neither the first nor the last." Countless people have marched for peace, and many more undoubtedly will. On the eve of the Iraq War about four years ago, over ten million people marched, worldwide, on a coordinated international day of demonstrations. Doing the math: Six billion people in the world. Divide by ten million. That would be about one of every 600 men, women, and children alive on Earth marching for peace on that day. That was a good turnout. Of course . . . war happened anyway. Did the demonstrations make a difference at all?  I don't know.

Did the 1986 cross-country peace march make a difference? It made a difference to me, of course. But for peace on Earth?

The first two lines of Holly Near's chorus state an interesting proposition:

We will have peace
We will because we must

What does it mean to say we "must" have peace? Didn't Ishmael's "Erratic Retaliators" prove for millions of years that we don't really need peace to survive as a species? Don't the wild animals prove that constantly?

Or is there such a thing as "spiritual" evolution? Do humans get wiser, as a species? Or not really?

We will because we must.

If we must have peace, then we will have it.

Is that so? If yes, then are we close to that point yet? Are there too many of us here now, are we facing too many common eco-threats, is our war technology almost too terrifying to make war? Will any of us alive today see a day when human war is obsolete (short of us all being dead from bombs or guns or eco-catastrophe)?

At the moment, it doesn't look good. They say the darkest moment is before the dawn. Is it dark enough yet?
 

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Watch Words (February, 2007)

Apologies

Babysitting Disaster
 

Recently, I babysat a friend's four-year-old, and the boy got into a manic, violent mood. He began whipping my face with pipe cleaners. I said, "Stop. That hurts." He laughed, and thrust the pipe cleaners at my nose and eyes. I walked away and lay face down on his mom's bed. He followed, got on the bed, and began kicking my body and head, apparently having a grand time. I said, "Hey, that REALLY hurts! Do you really want to hurt me?" He answered with another hard kick. I rolled off the bed and went and sat on a chair. He followed, walked up to me, and spit at me.

That did it. "You're taking a time out!" I yelled.

"NO!!!" he screamed.

I carried him to his bed. "You are staying right here until your mother comes home!"

"NO! I DON'T LIKE IT!!!" He screamed and screamed as if he was being murdered.

I let him go after about a minute. He sulked away quietly for a while and then came back to play with me, more civilly, if not exactly chastened.

When his mom got home, I told her what had happened. She asked her son, "Do you have something to say to Marc?"

I cringed. I didn't want him to say it.

Neither did he. It didn't get said.

Later, his mom admitted to me that she didn't want to raise a kid who would mumble "I'm sorry," and never mean it. I didn't blame her.


Why An Apology Was Not Expected
 

Did I do something to spark the boy's misbehavior? His mother didn't think so. She had a few ideas about stresses he may have been feeling, for reasons that were not my fault. I suggested that the boy--who is the son of two women--may have been simply testing his limits with a big man whom he felt safe with. His mom agreed that he clearly "felt safe enough to melt down" with me, but she rejected the notion that he was merely testing limits.

Anyway, she said, he's four. He doesn't really know why he does what he does. He just feels, and then he acts. He is not developmentally capable of introspection or reflection.

So how could he possibly apologize?

Fair enough. I think it is okay for a four-year-old not to apologize. Being repentant at age four is not the most important thing. Understanding that it's not okay to hurt is important. But that's not the same thing.

An apology should be an expression of genuine remorse.

And if America , the strongest nation on Earth, can never apologize, then who has a right to expect an apology from anyone, much less a four-year-old?


It Almost Happened in 2000
 

On June 19, 2000 (the anniversary of the day in 1862 when Congress prohibited slavery in the American territories), U.S. Representative Tony Hall (D-Ohio) introduced a House resolution that Congress should formally apologize for slavery.

On that same day, thousands demonstrated in front of the Capitol building in support of Hall's resolution, and in hopes that President Bill Clinton would issue a Presidential Proclamation establishing Juneteenth Independence Day as a national holiday.

There was reason for hope. Barely two years earlier, on a trip to Africa, Clinton had stated, "European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that." Which was almost an apology.

And just a few years later, President George W. Bush would call slavery "one of the greatest crimes of history." Which was, also, almost an apology.

Yet, as Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson has pointed out, "Calling slavery evil is as old as the Founding Fathers."

Hall's resolution never made it out of committee.

No Juneteenth proclamation was issued, by Clinton or any other president.

To this day, the United States has never officially apologized for the atrocity of slavery.
 


Do Nations Apologize? No. People Do.
 
 

In May, 2004, President Bush acknowledged on Arab TV that the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib had been "abhorrent." "What took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know," he said. "In a democracy, everything is not perfect. Mistakes are made."

Bush's carefully worded non-apology was met with scorn in the Arab world, according to news reports.
However, about a month later, an advertisement sponsored by the American ecumenical group FaithfulAmerica appeared on the Arab TV networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, featuring a Presbyterian minister, a Muslim iman, a Catholic nun, and a Jewish rabbi, who delivered the following statement together:

"A salaam aleikum [peace be upon you], As Americans of faith, we express our deep sorrow at abuses committed in Iraqi prisons. We stand in solidarity with all those in Iraq and everywhere who demand justice and human dignity. We condemn the sinful and systemic abuses committed in our name, and pledge to work and right these wrongs."

This message was received far more warmly than the president's.

The original idea for a "citizens' apology" to the Arab world was conceived by Karin Rossman of El Cerrito , CA . Her husband, Michael Shellenberger , circulated Karin's idea via email, where it got picked up by moveon.org, and eventually adopted by FaithfulAmerica.

Shellenberger explains, "An apology acknowledges that I did something wrong and that someone else suffered because of it. For there to be healing in the relationship, I have to make amends. On a basic level, it acknowledges that there is a relationship. With the apology on Arab TV and in Arab newspapers, we were trying to promote the value of responsibility: that we, as American citizens, are responsible for what's going on in Iraq ."
 

And Now . . . ?
 
Today, everyone (except the president, his team, a rapidly shrinking cadre of Republican loyalists in Congress, and Joe Lieberman) seems to acknowledge that the war in Iraq has been a disastrous mistake.

This past Monday, Senator Arlen Spector, the Republican former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared that the president is "not the sole decider" about what we'll do next in Iraq . It seems very unlikely at this writing that Congress will approve and fund the president's latest proposal for a "surge" of new military force in Iraq .

But amidst much soulful speech about wasted American lives and money, there is nary a peep of an apology to the Iraqi people--or, for that matter, to the world.


The Damage Done
 

According to a 2006 study carried out by American and Iraqi epidemiologists and overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University 's Bloomberg School of Public Health, approximately 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not happened. According to the study, 601,000 deaths have resulted from violence and the rest from other causes, such as disease.

In short, the American-led war in Iraq has been the direct or indirect cause of 500 violent Iraqi deaths per day for nearly four years. This is over and above the number of deaths that would have been inflicted by Saddam Hussein's regime.

We toppled a tyrant, and fomented a civil war. We turned Iraq from an oppressed country to an unlivable one. We have destabilized the region, heightened ethnic tensions, and set religious tolerance back a few generations in the Middle East .

When "normal" people are caught in a civil war, they have nowhere to go. They are trapped in a seething cauldron of unpredictable violence. They are terrorized.

I agree with former Senator John Edwards (who is running for president) that we should withdraw our troops from Iraq as soon as possible. But Edwards' blithe assertion that ordinary Iraqi citizens must now "take responsibility" and "step up to the plate" is obscene.

What is the mystique about nation-states, that they can never apologize?

But how could we even start to apologize for a calamity of such massive proportions? What can we possibly say?
 

How to Apologize
 
Can we say to the Iraqi people: "We know we can never fully atone for the mayhem we have wrought in your country and in your lives. We know that when we withdraw our troops, there will be massive suffering, and we are powerless to stop it. But know that our remorse is sincere. And we understand it is incumbent on us to make such amends as we can, possibly for generations to come."

Can we say to the world: "We have made a historically volatile region even more dangerous. We have committed vast and terrible folly. While we cannot undo what we have done, we now want to work with you to help limit the unspeakable damage and suffering caused by our foolish, arrogant policies."

Though we are a young, immature country, we need not be one that just mumbles "Sorry" like an insincere four-year-old.

Any apology for mass death will be inadequate. But we have to start somewhere.

What would happen if one of our alleged leaders--perhaps even a presidential candidate--voiced such a sentiment? Would he or she be struck down for having the temerity to apologize for America ? Is our national spirit so brittle, so incapable of reflection or introspection?

Or could we admit that after 9/11 we were scared, and we behaved cruelly and thoughtlessly? Can we be a humble nation? Are we old and wise and strong enough to apologize?

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 
Send 'em on! Respond to marcwordsmith@comcast.net. (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)


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Watch Words (January, 2007)
Happy New Year!

Believe in the New Year
 

Some people say, "Oh, it's just another day. People pretend something changes at midnight on December 31, but really, nothing happens."

Others point out that there are actually any number of New Year's Days each year, depending on what you celebrate. For example, there is the Jewish new year in September, and the Chinese new year in February.

January 1 is random; it's not even the solstice.

So they say.

But when that big number changes, we all feel it. Regardless of what we profess to believe, or what holidays we do or don't celebrate, we've all been watching those ubiquitous four-digit numbers flip over just once a year our entire lives. It was 2006 just hours ago, and now it's 2007. It's a new year.

When a world of people all celebrate a single moment of transition, I think it's safe to say that something happens.
 

What Happens?
 
There is a sense of letting go of the old, and anticipating the new. A sense of the world born afresh--or at the very least, hope born afresh.

Perhaps every day brings new and limitless possibilities, but New Year's Day is the one day on which, I think, most of really feel and know this in a profound way.

And So . . .
 
So, I'll add my humble wordsmith wishes to all those you've already garnered for '07.

May this be a year for you of tremendous health and vitality.

May this year contain much inspiration, and may you find ever new and exciting reasons to live.

May you feel lots of love this year for others, and may you feel completely loved.

May this year bring many surprises that are wonderful and unimaginable right now.

May there be peace in 2007. May all wars be over. May people be relieved of the rage and pain that drives them to hurt and kill.

May the people of the world choose to act collectively, in 2007, to halt global warming and protect our biosphere for generations to come. May there be a great awakening to what is at stake.

May we all live with less fear and more freedom.

May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you be at ease.

Happy new year!
 
 


Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?
 

Send 'em on! Respond to marcwordsmith@comcast.net (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)
 

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