Saturday, June 4, 2011

What Ireland's Troubles Can Teach The Middle East

Publihsed in Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 31, 2011

The greatest symbol of hope for peace in Middle East is a frail, little old lady wearing a frumpy looking hat, arrayed in an emerald green dress, her back bowed with age, a sensible purse hung, as always, from her left arm. She is known to her admirers as Brenda, to the rest of the world as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the second of that name.

The same day that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met in Washington to repeat the seemingly same old, tried, frustrating, enraging back and forth blathering about the terms for peace in Palestine, good ole Brenda was wrapping up the first visit ever of a British monarch to Ireland in the nearly nine hundred years of bloody, often savage history between those two countries and peoples.

Her symbolic visit signaled that peace had finally and for all time come to a conflict which both uncannily parallels that of Palestine, but offers the best blueprint for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland pitted two irreconcilable people of different cultures and religions in a life or death fight over historic homelands. Most similarly, was the implied existential threat to one, the British Unionists, because the Irish Republican Army refused to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s right to exist. The British Army undertook a brutal occupation of nationalist neighborhoods where only the Irish tricolor flag ever flew.

The tribal violence of The Troubles seemed intractable until then British Prime Minster Tony Blair uttered an historic ultimatum to the belligerents: “The peace train is leaving the station,” and anyone not on board would be left behind because it was, really and truly, leaving the station. That was because the Irish Troubles had what the Middle East troubles do not have -- an actual framework for a final peace deal presented to the deadly enemies before they sat down to negotiate, which they had to accept, or get left behind.

The Irish peace train did leave, and everyone did get on board and it has arrived, after years of travelling, and its passengers have disembarked – Her Majesty being maybe the last to get off. The Irish peace treaty did not separate two warring peoples into two states, but accomplished the, perhaps, more difficult task of joining two such peoples into one state.

So it was disappointing the hear President Obama in his speech last week seemingly dismiss the three things which would constitute a real peace train which could actually leave the station:

1. The necessary participation of Hamas in a unified Palestinian government to negotiate peace. Hamas is just as the IRA was – a bloody-minded terrorist group which refuses to accept the right of its enemy to exist, but whose participation is the sine qua non of peace talks. As the IRA accepted Northern Ireland’s right to exist as a result of a peace treaty, not as a pre-condition to peace talks, so too will Hamas.

2. The presentation of an actual peace treaty to the belligerents. The United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations (the Group of Four) must present to the belligerents, and the world, the unalterable pre-amble to the final peace treaty: Two independent states with the unalienable right to exist within their pre-1967 borders.

3. Recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations. Obama threatened to cast the sole veto of this proposal in September. Creating the “fact on the ground” of such a state would be the peace train’s tooting its whistle as its wheels begin to roll. Such an event would finally bring the pre-requisite equality needed between two states, for those two states to negotiate with each other.

The possible future of Palestine was on full display last week in Ireland: The once reviled British monarch mobbed by adoring crowds, while the old IRA muttered about unifying Ireland and was roundly ignored. The guns stayed silent.

Brenda’s historic arrival came not on a royal jet, but on a peace train that was imposed upon two enemies, and not of their own creation – that is the model to imitate.

Joe Gannon, a resident of Northampton, reported from Northern Ireland in 1981 and
1985. He can be reached at

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sick and Tired of Patriotic Whiners

Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette 5/6/10

My big brother recently passed on an email from a Massachusetts legislator which listed everything he was “tired” of. It seemed an accurate inventory of the Tea Party’s complaints: we’re drowning in illegal aliens; Muslims hate us; everyone beats up on America for its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the federal government is an agent of the devil; nothing against Obama’s color, he just hates freedom. It went on and on, and it made me tired too. Sick and tired. So I wrote my big brother back.

Dear Jimbo,
I too, am sick and tired.
Sick and tired of all the whining and moaning from people who won't see past the end of their nose, but call themselves far sighted. Sick and tired of listening to fools who think Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are God's Chosen, instead of just carnival showmen taking the suckers for all they can get.
Wasn't it our own father who taught us "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit!" Well I am heartily sick and tired of the blind and confused telling us their poor eyesight and befuddled thinking is really a direct line to God and the Founding Fathers. In what other disguise would Satan come to Earth, except wrapped in a flag and thumping a bible?
And I am truly sick and tired of the endless cry-babying from so-called adults who insist on believing, with the faith of little children, that only America's excrement don't stink. It used to be a man, an adult, was supposed to shoulder his own mistakes, bear them and bear them well; instead of pointing to others like some mewling and puking baby, crying, "But they did worse than me did!"
Only a child would believe you can be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and get that way because you love God and freedom -- instead of you kicked ass and took names to get here. (Or worse, really, is the rube who believes we are as we are because God loves America more than other countries -- as if God is some giggling, frivolous cheerleader who prefers jocks to nerds.)
You want proof that the federal government is a force for good? Join the military, or get elected to congress, for 25 years, enjoy the best government-run health care system in the country, good pay and ever increasing raises, then retire with good benefits that no one can steal from you ten years later. And then get another sweet job in the defense industry or as a lobbyist. This is exactly what that America hating, welfare queen marrying, Muslim loving agent of Satan, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned us against. It was 50 years ago when he told America not to build what he named the "permanent military-industrial complex" that would suck the life blood out of our future and pour it into defense budgets and lobbyist firms which produce nothing. But what did Eisenhower know, he only saved us from the Nazis AND built America's highway system -- which he had to do over the hysterical objections of good patriotic rubes who thought the federal government had no business linking the nation with paved roads, or who feared the highways would lead to government intrusion. (And if you don’t believe it, you can look it up!)
So yeah, I am sick and tired too: of listening to people whine and bellyache, and call it love of country; of people who put blinders on and call it a crystal ball. Sick and tired of people who look only at their own lives -- stare at their own navels -- and call it a window on the world.
Maybe if we spent more time thoughtfully reading, quietly immersed in books, and less time receiving our opinions from TV and radio, maybe we'd actually be able to grasp what is happening to our country, and ourselves as a people. We are changing, we are evolving -- and you can either get with the fish whose feet are carrying them onto land where there is a better chance of survival. Or you can hang in the water with the Limbaugh's, Becks and Palins -- or anyone you want to mention left, right or center. Evolution knows no ideologies, no human fears nor dreams. It just is. And it is all that there is.
For there was a time when the fish left the sea, and went forth onto the land; and because they accepted change they were fruitful and did multiply. But you can be sure there was a lot of complaining and moaning about that too from the frightened fish so leery of dry land they could not sense the Leviathan shooting up from the depth.
Your loving brother,

Monday, July 20, 2009

So What If We're Not Alone In The Universe?

Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette
There are plenty of causes right here on terra firma to want to look away from our troubled earth; but last week’s launching of the Kepler spacecraft gives us another reason to search the stars with questioning eyes.
The on-going mission of the Kepler is to look not for signs of intelligent life, but size. The Kepler will search the celestial firmament for tiny but measurable shadows passing across distant stars which will indicate a planet that is of the right size and distance from its sun to create and sustain intelligent life. That is, not some ancient microbe buried on a dead planet like Mars; but a blue dot with the oceans and atmosphere to nourish life to the point of opposable thumbs and abstract thought.
Such a find, as was noted leading up to the launch of the Kepler, could help to answer the question “Are we alone in the Universe?” But is that really the right question? It seems absurd on its face to suggest that in all the billions of galaxies swirling about the cosmos, only this one would produce poets and prophets. (To say nothing of dictators and derivates.)
But science and science fiction have become so entwined (or confused) in the popular imagination, that we automatically assume that not being alone in the universe means some kind of cosmic block party is inevitable. That some far blown voyager must some day touch down here as surely as Columbus did the New World (only hopefully a kinder and less greedy one.)
But is that so? The Star Trekization of our imagination leads far too many to assume that our own galaxy is chock full of Vulcans, Klingons and all manner of humanoids just itching to set up a Federation of Planets. And thus the self-serving delusion that “UFO” stands for “Spaceship Piloted By Intelligent Beings.”
There oftentimes seems little regard for the science behind the science fiction. Space travel is both made possible and constrained by the rigors of the Einsteinian universe: space, time, light and gravity. And in that non-fiction world there is an absolute speed, and it is the speed of light.
Yet our own galaxy is some 100,000 light years across, and other galaxies where reasonably there is life are millions and millions of light years away. Even if some civilization could travel at light speed it would still take tens of thousands of years to get anywhere in just the Milky Way. Indeed, the Kepler is looking for Earth-like blue-dots in the constellation Lyra which is itself merely 32,000 light years away. What do the UFO hunters and Trekkies believe? That we or another life form will launch spaceships on voyages lasting dozens of millennia? The quaint notion that exploring the universe would be done in man-made spaceships was invented before we had any idea how unfathomably vast creation is.
And so perhaps the right question is not “Are we alone in the universe?” But “So what if we aren’t?” Because the insurmountable barrier to E.T. visiting is that the cosmos is so measureless, traveling even at the speed of light is going nowhere fast.
“But, ah….” cry the Trekkies, “we’ll just find a worm hole and pop out the other side of the universe!”
And that is precisely where the ruse of fiction takes over. Where the imagination does what we cannot: conflate the Einsteinian world of an absolute speed, with the theories of quantum mechanics in the sub-atomic world. It is the quantum theory which suggests the theoretical possibility of worm holes – some celestial tunnel though which we can pass to the far side of this universe, or all possible universes.
But quantum scientists themselves point out that such a theoretical phenomenon does not have to come super-sized as some whacking, great hole conveniently large enough to accommodate a starship.
It is just as possible, they theorize, for a worm hole to be small enough to exist in quantum foam, the smallest of all impossibly small sub-atomic particles. So while a worm hole theoretically awaits us in un-chartered space, it is as likely to exist in the newspaper you are holding, or inside a molecule in the human body.
Thus the very science on which the fiction is based, theorizes we are as likely to discover a worm hole in our own inner space as outer space!
Personally I think the answers to the macrocosm are found in the microcosm, and so we shall one day learn that galaxies are like wombs: most often they birth one life at a time. As such, our nearest neighbor is likely a galaxy away, and thus unreachable in a man-made spaceship through outer space.
And this is why so many shy from the melancholy of accepting that some alien intelligence will not come and rescue us from our ignorance, our self-destructive, environmental ponzi schemes: they are just too far away. No matter what the Kepler finds out there, we are left with the sobering knowledge that even if we are not alone in the universe; our future, our fate is entirely in our earthling hands.
I would offer one strange possibility: what if our purpose on this planet is to survive a thousand millennia so that we can evolve to the point where we might one day ramble across the universe not in a spaceship through outer space, but by accessing the inner worm hole in inner space?
Joe Gannon, a teacher and writer who lives in Florence, can be reached at

Friday, January 2, 2009

To Save A Drowning Man, Punch Him In the Face

Israel No Longer Knows How To Save Itself
(published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette 7 January 2009)

It is a dangerous thing to save a drowning man. Lifeguards know all too well that a drowning person is so panicked by their predicament that they are as likely to drag their rescuer down with them, as cooperate in their own saving. Indeed, the heroic lifeguard must be prepared to pop up out of the water and punch the doomed swimmer in order to subdue them so that their life can be saved.
The lesson being that those most in need of saving are often too frightened to know their own best interest. And so have to have it forced upon them, or they will die.
The latest pictures from Gaza, the most recent slaughter and savagery and bombing and killing bring all this to mind.
For it seems the state of Israel is so panicked, so frightened, so obsessed with its own desperate thrashing that it simply cannot see that it is drowning. And threatens to drag any would-be rescuer down with it.
What a lamentable but utterly foreseeable tragedy. Sixty years ago Israel was created as the state which was to end the tribulation of the Jews. It has done anything but. Instead it has become a military juggernaught which tramples the aspirations and rights of those it humiliates and torments daily under its draconian military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There might have been a time from its founding in 1948 to its capture of the occupied territories in 1967 when Israel was a beacon for something more than just itself.
But not any longer. Now it is, much like the United States, simply a proof that the ancient axiom “Might makes Right” is as alive today as it was 2000 years ago when the Romans -- who might have invented it -- used their might to drive the Jews from Palestine in the first place.
The nation and the people forged in the godless ovens at Auschwitz, were once the noble authors and guardians of the clarion call “Never Again!” And for a time Israel was the repository of humanity’s conscience – having suffered the unspeakable, its people were the watchdog on the ramparts of human history. On guard against all such evil. But not anymore.
Seventy years after the Holocaust began, a very fair lesson which can be drawn from it is that “Never Again” means never again shall Jews or Israelis be victimized without massive and/or disproportionate retaliation. Never again shall persecution be visited upon those who have already suffered. Everyone else is on their own. Such a philosophy so vigorously applied by Israel against the Palestinians calls to mind less the notion of “never again” than an old line from the poet W.H. Auden: “Many a sore bottom seeks a sorer one to kick.”
What all this means is that Israel has become a super power and like all super powers it inflates the value of its own worth and the worth of its citizens. Not unlike America, after all. The land which invented the phrase “Shock and awe.” The country which, because three buildings fell and 3000 people were killed on 9/11, has utterly destroyed one entire nation, is in the process of destroying another, and has wantonly caused the death of tens of thousands to slake its thirst for vengeance, but also to make itself feel safe.
Compared to that, how bad is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians? Compared to what the Hutus did to the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, how bad is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Compared to Pol Pot or Idi Amin, what crimes can Israel really be charged with?
And yet is this what the founders had in mind when they took up arms against Britain and the Arabs to create a homeland for the Jews? Is this what they truly wanted? To be compared favorably to the worst purveyors of violence in the world? To be fairly judged merely as “not as bad” as those others?
And so the picture of the dangerously thrashing, desperately drowning man returns. The crisis is such that it must be said the victim cannot read his own best interest and thus must be restrained, at all costs and by any means, restrained so that he can be saved.
If we surround Israel with enough rescuers, perhaps it can be saved from itself and not drown those who would pull it from the merciless pounding of history’s waves. If enough lifeguards clutch Israel tightly enough to their bosoms, perhaps its panicked thrashing, while dangerous, will spend itself before the rip tide of judgment carries it too far from humanity’s shore.
There is already so much hope pinned to the skinny shoulders of Barack Obama, we can fear he must break under the pressure. But to all those hopes we must add another: that in Hawaii he took a turn as a lifeguard, and so has learned that -- at least when saving a drowning man from himself -- a little hurt can do a lot of good.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Our Duty Is Not Done When We Leave The Voting Booth
Thoreau Reminds Us Of A Simple Truth
Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette 11/19/09

For those of us still celebrating the election of Barack Obama; for those of us still wandering around wonderingly letting those words roll joyfully off the tongue: "President Barack Obama"; for those of us still celebrating not just the end of the Bush nightmare but 30 years of right-wing Republican misrule, it might be time to ponder the words of Henry David Thoreau.
As far back as the 1850s that great Yankee radical warned us - as we have often been warned by our best and brightest -- not to fool ourselves into thinking our duty ends as we leave the voting booth. For, verily, it just begins. "Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail," Thoreau warned in Civil Disobedience.
The duty of Americans, he noted, was to know their duty and act upon it, not to leave it to the politicians we've voted into office.
The first duty of those who elected Obama is to spend these next weeks until that historic inauguration mapping out in our own minds exactly what is the "change we believe in:" and what that change will look like in actual policies.
And the first worry -- the prime directive for those who hope that hope is again possible -- is that, having awakened from a long slumber, the American electorate will go back to sleep, safe in the false belief that they have done their job. .
So what change should we be looking for Obama in inaugurate after his inauguration?
Language is the first change. We must have a new narrative, the story, which explains to ourselves and the world what we as a nation are about. The terms of political discourse must be agreed so we are talking about the same thing in the same way. Over the last 30 years the Republicans have successfully cast the very things which make a nation - government and the revenue it collects to sustain the country - as the root of all evil. We should speak of efficient, transparent government as a general good. And we must speak this way because we believe it.
What does government do? Go to our Constitution and re-read, recite, the preamble where it is all perfectly clear: Government exists to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty…" That is the standard against which all policy decisions should be judged. That would be a welcome change indeed.
Obama's superior oratorical skills and leadership charisma could lead us in a national "teach in" on this subject; just as he did on race during the campaign. But We The People must learn the lesson, take it to heart and act on it.
The economy is the next place for change. Our economic well-being is a long way off. And the devil is in the details most of us struggle to understand. We have tried to spend our way out of trouble bailing out the private sector on Wall St. Obama must try spending our way out of trouble in the public sector on Main St. -- an economic stimulus package which does not favor the financial sector nor send checks back to us.
The country has to pay for Bush's mistakes and misrule, and the greedy self-deception the nation went along with: that we could speculate our way to wealth. And while we can't by happiness, we can buy off unhappiness. We can spend for our future, as well as pay for past mistakes. What we need most is spending which creates jobs, keeps jobs not yet lost, and modernizes our nation before we crumble further.
The stimulus package - which could mean another trillion dollars in debt - should involve revenue sharing. The federal government has to send billions to state and municipal governments to expand spending on schools and teachers; home visit nurses; social workers; public defenders; libraries and librarians; emergency workers, police, and public hospitals. Other than promoting the general welfare, this revenue sharing will also keep people on government payrolls as a bulwark against the increasing unemployment which will roll down upon us before Wall Street is mended.
We must have change which favors our collective future by spending on infrastructure. Compared to Iraq or the bail out, the price to build a nationwide, high-speed railway system is a pittance, two or three score billions. Yet the short and long-term jobs it would create, and the energy it would save over a generation as it modernizes our very notion of travel and our addiction to oil, is incalculable.
That high-speed rail system would also require our finally modernizing bridges and roads. For in the midst of the worse financial crisis in 80 years all the bills for the bipartisan neglect of our infrastructure are overdue. (Indeed, China announced just such a spending package and it was the first ray of hope in Asia's stock markets since the crash. If China can be that farsighted, why can't we?)
Global Warming, the ten million pound gorilla in the room. Cutting the energy America burns is a top priority if the human race is to avoid catastrophe. Obama must make that national policy. But one needed change to the whole discussion is to finally declare as a top priority the urgent search for the technology to replace the internal combustible engine. Obama must declare that change a national mission with greater fanfare than when President Kennedy declared we would put a man on the moon in a decade.
The development of a green economy - not only as a moral good, but the next wave of economic development - must become economic policy. The economic stimulus package could seed billions to help do just that. If the big Detroit automakers want a government bailout, give it to them. Thirty or fifty billion dollars now to keep them afloat is well worth it, IF the price tag is Detroit makes even 50 percent of its cars hybrids or electric in 10 years. No one disputes that the technology is all there. It is time for the government to secure the blessings of any future at all by helping where needed, and forcing where necessary, this change. Bailing out Ford and GM is the right place to start. Obama could sell that to the country and set it all in motion if he is the agent of change he appears to be.
Foreign Policy: We must not saddle Obama with a "troops out now!" solution to Iraq. The U.S. will be out, by mutual agreement, within the first two years of his term. And much of that time will involve the actual withdrawal. We must give him the time.
Chastened as we are by Iraq, Obama should forevermore limit America's "exporting of democracy" to supporting free, transparent elections and accepting whomever is elected: Jihadist or not; anti-American or not. And that begins with restoring the free and fair election the Islamist Hamas won in Palestine in 2006. That election brought the change the Palestinians wanted.
In the days ahead we'll all have to find and embrace our inner policy wonk, if we want help the man of hope. The change We The People need is to accept that our vote is doing nothing but expressing an opinion. Now the work truly begins.
So let's all order up some more newspapers and news magazines to keep our finger better on the pulse. And while we wait for the subscriptions to kick in, we should continue to enjoy the possibilities this election has unleashed. That we need not be wearied, but energized. If we but keep our own feet to the fire, as well as Obama's, then in four years time we will still believe in change. And find that hope is not a emotion, but a lifestyle.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An Obama Win Just The Beginning

Palin will lead the Paleolithic Wing of GOP in the split
(published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette 10/23/08

Casting a wary eye over the political and economic landscape these days brings to mind nothing so much as that old Chinese saying: There is a great confusion beneath the heavens -- and the situation is excellent!
The confusion arises from the meltdown of both the economy and the McCain/Palin campaign. The excellent situation this confusion offers up is an election in which not only will Barrack Obama win the presidency; but the Republicans will lose the White House, both houses of Congress and its 30 year stranglehold on American politics and political discourse.
This election decides not just who gets the government, but who sets the American agenda for the next 12-25 years. For while there is much confusion about what to do now and for the next 10 years to restore and maintain our economic well-being; nowhere is there as much confusion as inside the GOP. For 30 years the Reagan/Gingrich/Bush government-is-the-root-of-all-Evil, taxes are the wages of sin, god-guns-and-gays Culture Warriors have dominated this country. And now they are reaping what they have sown. From New Orleans to Baghdad, from Main Street to Wall Street, from failing banks to failing schools, from the get go of 9/11 to Gitmo they have bankrupted this country, heaped scorn and shame upon our nation, and are finally -- amidst the wreckage of their wicked ways – out of steam, out of ideas, and come November 4th, out of power.
The GOP transformed into the Confused Old Party is George Bush’s greatest legacy.
If this sounds like counting chickens before their hatched then consider: McCain’s campaign has failed precisely because he abandoned his maverick-with-new-ideas persona and ran as an old school Republican sucking up to the right-wing base, indulging in character assassination, and finally, vainly, trying to keep from drowning by choosing Sarah Palin as a sop to the Paleolithic wing of the party. He could, in fact, not run a campaign other than he did. What possible ideas could McCain have run on and still captured the nomination? He is a prisoner of the Republican ideology. Not only did it not save him, it was throwing a stone to that drowning man.
The financial meltdown finally showed a somnambulist electorate, in the starkest terms, that he and the GOP have nothing to offer in the 21st century. (And if you believe that God takes an interest in human affairs, perhaps the economic crisis erupting in so timely a fashion as to help Obama over the top was His way of making up for 9/11 exploding so early in Bush’s first term and the carte blanche it gave him.)
And so during this time of great confusion the election could very well result in this most excellent situation: a Democratic win in the White House and Congress might cause the GOP to go down in defeat and then split in two.
Indeed, such a split has been whispered of already, mostly by Republican Young Turk intellectuals who have declared that the GOP cannot go on winning elections as the party which hates government, science and immigrants. McCain’s defeat will prove them right.
Add to those Young Turks the weight of old-party stalwarts like James Baker -- who must rue the day they helped President Bush “win” the 2000 election only to watch him spurn their advice and blunder his way into two disastrous wars under the tutelage of the neo-cons. Indeed, a number of conservative pundits like George Will and David Brooks already have thrown in the towel on this election and the strategy which caused its defeat.
These Young Turks and old stalwarts – that is to say the conservatives who wince in shame every time a Republican candidate has to raise their hand and swear they don’t believe in evolution – swallowed hard over the past decades so long as the Paleolithic wing won elections. But their pact with the devil will be broken by their impending defeat and they could form a critical mass which will split the party.
If this seems like pie-in-sky it is because the Culture Warriors – now led by Sarah Palin -- still control the public face of the party and no one will break ranks to such a degree until after their defeat.
But consider November 5th. The only weapon left in the old school GOP is to treat an Obama victory much the way the Gingrich GOP did Bill Clinton’s election: as if an assassin has crept into the nursery. That is, to act only as a spoiler. But the gaping maw of our economic crisis is too frightening for the radical right to simply retreat into its bunker and whip up an hysteria as if Barack Bin Laden has been chosen by the electorate.
Not that they won’t try. Palin and the Paleolithics have no ideas other than to play spoiler. Let them. If they do they will quickly force those Congressional Republicans who don’t go down in defeat to chose, before the midterm election in 2010, between moderating their policies or face losing even more seats. That prospect is as likely as any to create a split in the party. And such a split will free Obama to govern as the kind of president the campaign has not allowed him to be as a candidate.
There is a precedent here. In Britain through the 1980s and early ‘90s the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and “Thatcherism” were as dominant and invulnerable as the Republicans here. Yet their defeat by Tony Blair (in an election as historical as this one) cast the Conservatives into the wilderness for 12 years while they reinvented themselves. When they win the next election, which they probably will, a “Thatcherite” Conservative could not get a portfolio in that government any more than Osama bin Laden could be the next king of Saudi Arabia.
The only real cloud threatening to rain on this glorious parade is that the electorate, the sovereign citizenry, having awoken from their disturbed slumber of the past 8 years, will take an Obama victory as a sign to go back to sleep and “leave it to the professionals.”
Among the many tasks facing that “skinny kid with the funny name” is to lace hope with some Red Bull and pour it down our gullet. Drink up everyone – the kool aid is excellent.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The One Good Reason To Celebrate the 4th: The Word

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 4 July 2008
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen Colonies of the United States of America

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Each 4th of July begins with a sigh. How to celebrate the birth of my nation? How do I celebrate the birth of one of the most unique nations in the history of the world?
For many years I didn't - feeling the 4th of July was to my sense of patriotism what St. Patrick's Day was to my sense of Irishness: an excuse to party, cookout, drink, parade, get with friends or family.

But the real meaning of the day was utterly lost, obscured by the hubbub of cheap gimmicks, shopping sales and festivities.

And then, of course, there is The History.

Each human birthday conjures up the life we have led to date; and the older we get the less a birthday can be a celebration, what with all our unanswered wishes and unwashed days stacked up all around us.

So too, each birthday of a nation: we hang out our flags -- which bear each day, each act, noble and ignoble stitched to its stars and stripes for all to see. If you have the sense and courage to see.

For every Washington or Lincoln there is a Sitting Bull or Geronimo. For every Jefferson or Roosevelt, a Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass. For every Daniel Shay there is a Jeffrey Amherst. For every Bunker Hill or Normandy or there is a Vietnam or Iraq.

For each moment of soul stirring nobility there is an act of villainy.

Only the words have remained unchanged.

Read the opening of the Declaration of Independence and there you will see -- unsullied by time, humanity or history - there you will see our great cause for celebration.

For stated there in words more artful and concise than ever penned, stated there is the simple, clear and unambiguous Idea which compelled us to became a nation. The very foundation stone upon which all else was to be built -- both for us and the world.

Despite our sins as a nation, the United States of America remains the only nation truly founded on an idea.

The Declaration begins with the words "When in the course of human events" - what a masterly way to describe politics in all their complicated and convoluted details: human events. Not religions, not ideologies, not identities, but simple human events.

And that first sentence - and what a sentence, 71 words long! - that first sentence holds a lesson long lost on American politicians: when you seek to do something which will effect others, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" compels you to explain your actions to the international community. Not a subservient respect, but a decent one.

Then come the 35 words which revolutionized the world - the words which are offered as the only explanation as to why the colonies dissolved the bonds which connected them to Britain and became a separate nation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Again the mastery and perhaps the only true genius of those flawed men in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1776. "We hold these truths to be self-evident…" There needs be, in fact can be, no discussion whatsoever as to the truth because it is as self-evident as land is dry and sea is wet. As self-evident as a sunrise, a rainbow, a thunderstorm.

And what truth is so utterly self-evident? The utterly revolutionary idea that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

No document in the previous 3000 years or the subsequent 232 can match those 27 words as an artful and concise summary of human aspiration. No document can match it as a truth around which to organize our human events. No better ideal has ever been laid down for us to aspire to, or fail to achieve.

And the true genius of the Founders is that those combined 35 words have stood and can stand the test of changing times, laws, customs and "isms."

The Declaration may say "men" but as times changed there is no one who does not understand "men" to mean mankind, and thus human kind. Some pundits try to sell the notion that the "pursuit of happiness" - my favorite part - originally meant "accumulation of property." But as times changed the definition of "happiness" has too, but not the meaning of the words, the promise that its pursuit is a fundamental right.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out before that the phrase "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" means that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be taken away (alienated) by man, government nor even God, the creator who has endowed us with those rights.

But neither the writers nor the signers of the Declaration invented such ideas. They were the product of the Enlightenment, a decades long evolutionary leap in consciousness when humanity tried to liberate itself from millennia, of feudalism and absolute monarchies to place at the center of the universe, not the king nor his subject, but the citizen, the individual beholden to no one. And thus the singular notion that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Declaration turned the world upside down: no longer did the Creator endow sovereigns; but only unalienable rights which belong to sovereign citizens.
It was as radical a "discovery" in human events as proving the earth revolved around the sun, or was actually round. Those were also ideas that people were a long time accepting, and many simply tried to ignore or repress for decades or centuries.

And yes, even as the ink dried on the Declaration, even as the United States was in the moment of its birth, we began to fail to live up to that those principles, that ideal.
But the words had been indelibly written, the idea born, and the world was a much better place for it.

So today and every 4th of July let us celebrate not the nation, the men nor women, not the deeds villainous nor heroic, but the Words, the Idea the United States has given to the world.

In fact, cut out the opening to our Declaration of Independence on this page and read it out loud at your picnic or cookout. And if you are, like me, a person of hope, a patriot, while reading them see if those words do not create a lump in the throat, a feeling that we as a nation have done one thing utterly right.

Read also to learn anew that those words do offer a clear way forward, a map to where we all want to get. But also a light, to find our way home when we are lost.