When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

A Peculiar Kind of Thanksgiving

During one of the 2016 Republican primary debates, Sen. Marco Rubio said, “I thank God that George W. Bush was president on 9/11.” He was implying, of course, that a President Al Gore would not have handled things so well as Bush did during the aftermath.

In a sense, though, Rubio was thanking God for two protracted wars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people; thanking God for the billions of dollars wasted on those wars; thanking God for destabilizing the Middle East and opening the way for ISIS; thanking God for yet another generation of broken soldiers and broken families, some of whom live in broken cars and under broken bridges. There is more, of course, but that’s the picture.

Knowing now the consequences of the 2000 election—an election predicated and fueled by intense hatred of Bill Clinton and, by extension, Al Gore—would your vote then have been different? Could anyone who voted for Gorge W. Bush honestly say, “Well, so what? It would have been much, much worse with Gore as president.” Worse how? I ask.

Surely there was a lot of God-thanking when the Electoral College tipped in favor of Donald Trump, giving him the presidency despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. Never mind that we have set ourselves up for potential consequences more terrible than those brought on by George Bush.

Some of us Americans are comfortable with the prospect of living under an authoritarian, white-nationalist regime. I can imagine how grateful they are for the opportunity. Others of us are not so enamored of the idea.

But who knows? There could be reason for optimism. Take one example: Maybe under Trump the middle class will rise to its former glory days. Maybe all those shuttered factories in the rust belt will spontaneously rev to life. Workers (non-union, of course) will enjoy a wage high enough that families can once again be single-earner households. Dad will truck off to the plant while mom cooks a nice hot breakfast for the kids before she drives them to their excellent charter school. Wouldn’t that be great?

Today, we can only predict how a Trump presidency will play out. But the anomaly that was the past campaign and election doesn’t bode well for the country and the world, let alone for those who championed him.

Yet someday, no matter how bad things get over the next four years, someone undoubtedly will “thank God” that Donald Trump was president. Because under Hillary Clinton, just like under Al Gore, things would have been so much, much, much worse. For the believers, it could not be otherwise.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

(For the record, I supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but voted for Clinton in opposition to Trump. I would have preferred another Democratic candidate. Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency and her close association with Wall Street were off-putting for me. However, she has suffered years of assault by the right-wing propaganda machine, and I don’t think she deserves the reputation the right has assigned to her.)

What Makes America Great?

uncle_sam_pointing_fingerI am 65 years old. I remember the day, November 22, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John Kennedy. I remember, two days later, watching on black-and-white television as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. I remember my father asking: “What’s this country coming to?”

Fifty three years later, a bi-polar answer appears imminent.

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump fired a bullet into the heart of the American psyche and of democracy itself. Half of us watched in stunned disbelief as he won enough electoral votes to become the 45th president of the United States. The other half, the people who provided the gunpowder, will dance with self-righteous joy as their savior begins making “America great again” when he takes office on January 20, 2017.

For some (myself included) his election to power is a tragedy. For others it’s a hallelujah moment. It’s pointless to rehash the details because so much has been—and will be—written about that already. Rather, Donald Trump has compelled in me an examination of conscience about the United States and its presumed greatness within the context of my upbringing and understanding of the world.

I am a third-generation American—with German heritage on my father’s side and Scottish and Polish on my mother’s. My parents raised me with the implicit understanding that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. It alway has been and ever shall be, world without end, amen. I was born just six years after the end of World War II. My father didn’t go to war—he wasn’t old enough—but he did enlist when of age, first in the Air Force, then in the Army. When I was 21, he retired (in a ceremony at the Pentagon, no less) as a Lieutenant Colonel. Growing up in the classroom of the military family reinforced my education in patriotism.

An early memory is of watching on television, with my mother, the opening-day parade of the Olympics. She took the opportunity for a lesson in patriotism and American exceptionalism. She prompted me to notice that when each team passed the reviewing stand, the flag bearer would lower the staff, bringing it parallel to the ground. “Dipping the flag” was a sign of respect to the dignitaries of the host country sitting in the stands. “Now watch,” she said as our team approached the stands, Stars and Stripes held high. Team USA walked right by the stand without giving the flag so much as a twitch. “Our flag dips for no one,” my mother said. I suppose I felt proud. I think that was the point. But I didn’t, and don’t, understand the need for such blatant arrogance.

Encompassing my childhood were the specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the fear of being overrun by Communists, and the massive effort to beat the USSR to the moon. Also in the mix were the baby boom (I’m in there somewhere) and the rapid rise of the middle class, supported by spectacular industrial and technological advances. There was no doubt that America was the most powerful country in the world in all respects. We manufactured the best products, built the best roads and buildings, excelled in everything. We had very recently conquered Hitler, liberated Europe, and blew Japan to smithereens.

We are Number One! We are the Best! And, with implied importance, we are good—so very, very good—meaning our moral superiority in the world is unquestionable.

At age 14, in 1965 and just 20 years after the war with Germany and Japan, my father’s duty to country took him and his family to Europe. We landed in Paris on a sunny day in late August or early September, just before I would start ninth grade. I have no way of knowing how different my life would be today had I not lived those three years in Europe, first in France then in Germany. But I do know that what I saw and experienced there was awe-inspiring: the rich cultures, the industry, the buildings, the history, the art. National pride was palpable, especially in France. From then on my impressionable mind understood that greatness was relative.

I returned from Europe in 1968, in time to begin my senior year at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, VA, just outside Washington, DC’s beltway. I returned to a country in the midst of upheaval, a country different from the one I had left. In January of ’68 the Tet Offensive had escalated the war in Vietnam, and scenes of killing and destruction played out daily on the 6:00 news. On April 4, Martin Luther King, and on June 5, Robert Kennedy, were murdered. In August came the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and its attendant protests, riots, and police brutality. There were the Yippies, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers and the Hard Hats. Soon came Kent State (with “four dead in O-hi-o”) and Watergate and so much more. It was an era of turmoil and tension and anger and hatred throughout the country, especially between those who supported the war in Vietnam and those who were against it. For the record I was against it, although I did not engage in any kind of serious protest.

Then came the Pentagon Papers, a Top Secret study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The Papers (7,000 pages in 47 volumes). In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers to the New York Times. A major revelation was that the government had lied to the people and to Congress about what was happening in Southeast Asia and our reason for being there in the first place. It exposed a secret history in contradiction to the public one. Ellsberg was a hero to some, a traitor to others. Edward Snowden is in the same place.

If Ellsberg—and much later Snowden—proved that the government lies to the people, George W. Bush, with his invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, proved that the people don’t mind being lied to. It all depends on whose lies “we the people” choose to believe. Truth is not the point. Rather, we accept as truth only what we want to believe. All else is false, regardless of fact.

The election cycle of 2016 could be a case study of this phenomenon, with the constant proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, innuendo as fact, and outright lies emanating from Donald Trump, his campaign, and right-wing propaganda mills—enough to get him elected by the believers.

We know from history that some very thoughtful and intelligent men wrote the documents upon which the United States was founded. They intended a country that would distinguish itself among all others for the values contained in those documents. Yet, then, there was only potential for greatness. We also know from history how the machinery that built our country was fueled by genocide, theft, broken treaties, slavery, deception, repression, and all manner of violent oppression—much of which continues—at home and abroad.

I grew up with the doctrine of “might makes right.” But that bully’s refrain has little to do with greatness, unless all one cares about is wielding power in the upper hand while crushing enemies underfoot. I understand how projecting strength and power on the world stage is vitally important, but so too are many other qualities. They include respect, kindness, compassion, integrity, honesty, generosity (we are a generous country, to be sure), fairness, justice, judgment, virtue, and an astute, clear-eyed understanding of our world. This is wisdom. The opposite of wisdom is ignorance and delusion.

If we insist the United States is the greatest country in the world, shouldn’t we also insist that we examine, monitor, and maintain those human and humane qualities that could make us so? To exclude them makes it impossible for us to be, as Ronald Reagan put it, that “shining city on the hill.” We cannot be that country unless we the people embody those bright qualities. If we the people can’t embody those qualities, we certainly can’t expect our leaders to. And if we choose leaders who are dishonest, deceitful, hateful, mean-spirited, obnoxious, ignorant, selfish, self-promoting, and utterly lacking in wisdom, then we cannot expect to be the greatest country in the world—even if we can bomb everyone else into oblivion and force them to our will. All we can do is brag about being what we are not.

Much like the guy we just elected.

Ebola and Ignorance: Where is the Wisdom?

 

ebolaI recently met a man named Dick, who, before he retired, worked for the World Health Organization. However, he told me, the WHO had recalled him to duty to help with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Did he have a background in medicine? I asked. No, his field was communication. I wondered how a person good at communicating could be useful in turning back an epidemic. Dick explained that many villagers fear and mistrust the government so much they don’t believe officials when they say things like “Don’t touch that body! You’ll get sick!”

During the 2002-03 SARS epidemic that began in China and spread to 37 countries, Dick was part of a team that developed a communication model that was useful in conveying information on how to disrupt the spread of the disease. A similar model, Dick told me, would be used in West Africa to help control the spread of Ebola.

Not long after Dick left for West Africa I watched a Frontline episode documenting the efforts of Doctors Without Borders to treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Among other things, the program reinforced Dick’s premise. Indeed, many people got sick during funeral ceremonies during which it’s customary to touch and even kiss the body—ensuring contagion. In some cases villagers hid from healthcare workers, fearing contact with them was equal to a fatal diagnosis. Most striking to me was the city dweller who insisted Ebola was a hoax perpetrated by the World Health Organization to steal people’s blood.

It would be easy to dismiss these instances as examples of third-world ignorance, and insist that contracting the disease was merely the logical result of ignorance. Yet ignorance isn’t confined to the third world. We have plenty of it here in the first world, and not just about Ebola.

Ignorance, by definition is a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education. The use of the word “or” (instead of “and”) implies that a person may be lacking in any one of these qualities and still be ignorant. For example, a person could be highly educated in, say, physics but lack an understanding of—and therefore ignorant of—the intricacies of international banking.

Wisdom, according to my copy of Merriam-Webster, is “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; and knowledge of what is proper and reasonable, good sense or judgement.” Synonyms of wisdom include discernment, insight, and perception.  It seems reasonable, then, to further define ignorance as a lack of wisdom.

With the first diagnosis of Ebola in the United States we saw an immediate outbreak of ignorance as displayed by many politicians and the usual media blowhards calling for quarantines and travel bans. A political activist from South Carolina, on Twitter, went so far as to call for the “humane execution” of anyone testing positive for the disease.

Epidemiology is the branch of medical science that studies the spread of disease and how to control a given disease once it infects a population. At first glance, travel bans and far-reaching quarantines (never mind euthanasia) may seem reasonable and in good judgment. Yet, those who have studied the spread of, and have treated, Ebola for years say travel bans and unwarranted quarantines are ineffective and may do more harm than good. Clearly, such measures are unwise.

Even though the Obama administration and other authorities (i.e., experts in the field) have repeatedly made their case, a poll taken in October indicates that more than 70% of U.S. citizens support a civilian travel ban into and out of West African countries with Ebola outbreaks. How can this be? Fear is one answer. It’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. But it’s more than just fear. It’s fear incited by pundits and politicians who, for their own base reasons, spread ignorance instead of wisdom.

Controlling the spread of ignorance is, it seems to me, as monumental a chore as controlling the spread of Ebola. And even if there is not yet a vaccine against Ebola, we do have wisdom as a vaccine against ignorance. Yet wisdom seems in such short supply. For instance, where is the wisdom in arming teachers to combat school shootings? Where is the wisdom in poisoning our aquifers so that we may extract every last drop of oil from the earth? Where is the wisdom in intentionally working to make sure a large part of our society remains economically poor, poorly educated, and in poor health? And, although it may help win elections and keep the privileged in power, disenfranchising thousands out of fear they will vote for the opposition party does not seem wise to me.

The fellow in Sierra Leone who insisted Ebola is a hoax is no more ignorant than those who insist climate change is a hoax perpetrated by scientists so they can get more grant money (or any number of other reasons). Nor were those villagers who mistrusted the authorities more ignorant than those of us who mistrust authorities who say vaccines don’t cause autism.

There is no crime in having a lack of education, knowledge, or understanding. These qualities take time and the right conditions to develop, both within the individual and throughout society. But when leaders—political, social, religious, business, and so on—willfully spread ignorance and work against creating the conditions for wisdom to flourish and society to prosper, that is a crime.

Why so many of us continue to believe, vote for, and otherwise support such people is beyond me.

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