Category Archives: Commentary

I forget where I first heard the advice to journalists, “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” but I’ve done my best to heed that. While trying to maintain journalistic objectivity, I have also written editorials and commentaries for the Rutland Herald and Middlebury’s Valley Voice and once, when a Herald piece was passed along, for the Hartford Courant. It was an elderly lady whom I was interviewing for a news story who first told me another saying I have taken to heart through the years: “No good that you do in life will go unpunished.”

AMTRAK RUTLAND VT TO NYC 2004

Those who canoe Otter Creek see all sorts of wildlife, because the critters are so used to seeing stuff floating downstream that they don’t get alarmed at the intrusion. Similarly, the world near a railroad line stops paying attention to the trains, and stops worrying about what the passengers might see. Consequently, they see a lot.
It’s odd, the way the world faces away from the railroad tracks, when the opposite is true near a highway. Dilapidated buildings, cast-off machinery, unsightly materials and outright garbage remain in view, the owners having no shame about how their place looks from behind.
“The other side of the tracks,” low-rent neighborhoods are sometimes called. Rents are lower where the noise and rumblings are higher, so train passengers get to see “how the other half lives.”
For those who go south from New York, there are the sprawling, multistory slums of places like Newark, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Acre after acre of crumbling buildings, enlivened at best with vivid murals and at worst with threatening gang graffiti, make clear how big the problem of dealing with America’s underclass will be.
But also, there are intriguing glimpses of the world of work, since factories and commercial centers often seek access to rail freight services. There is a history of business architecture waiting to be written, which can be “read” through the train window as structures in brick, metal, and concrete go streaming by, often mysterious and sometimes impressive.
This culminates between New York and Washington, where the train drills through a zone of heavy industry that epitomizes why many people are glad they live in Vermont. Stacks belch what one hopes is just steam, huge electrical pylons stalk giant-like into the distance, and enormous tanks, some starting to rust, probably hold those millions of barrels of oil the papers discuss so abstractly.
On family trips to see relatives in New Jersey, my father would remark that the smell these behemoths emitted was the smell of money. Back then I thought he was trying to make a joke; now, I suspect he was expressing an insight.
But for travelers to and from New York City, the Hudson River dominates the view–The same river that once gave its name to an American style of heroic landscape painting because it was so scenic.
Having taken other passengers’ advice to grab a right-hand window seat while the train was in Vermont and sparsely populated, I got to see enough of the Hudson River Valley to wish Amtrak had an on-board historical guidebook (public relations said they do have this for other routes, and the Ethan Allen’s turn will probably come).
Mansions overlook the river, perhaps originally those of the patroons who wanted to impose their lordship over early Vermont. One island has a castle on it, or something very much like one.
Tugs muscle big barges upriver, a reminder that the river-canal-lake system that was once the glory of New York’s transportation system may have a future. Huge iron bridges pinwheel past, magnified versions of the historic iron bridges that dot the Vermont landscape.
When the train goes through Garrison, West Point looms across a narrow point in the Hudson, big and gray and clearly military. It was a fort before it was a military academy, and still looks that way.
For scenery, the Ethan Allen can’t rival the Canadian cross-country lines, to use an often-cited example of how people can see the sights by rail. Too often there are scrub trees in the way that ought to be removed, it wouldn’t hurt to put up a few interpretive signs, and there ought to be rail route version of Green-up Day.
But the moment you decide to give up keeping watch and bury your nose in a book, a traveling companion is likely to say, “Wow, did you see that?”

FORMERLY THE FOUNDATION FOR EXCELLENT SCHOOLS

FORMERLY THE FOUNDATION FOR EXCELLENT SCHOOLS

Of all the journalistic work I’ve done, some of the most rewarding involved the Foundation For Excellent Schools, as it was known early in this century. An educational facilitation group with a superb record, it has since changed names to become College for Every Student and has relocated its headquarters to Essex, New York (whose school system is part of what follows, but it is still masterminded by Herbert F. ‘Rick” Dalton, Jr. Current information, the organization’s history, and an email contact form can be found at www.collegefes.org

The following two pieces are meant to illustrate their work and spirit and to encourage anyone who could use their assistance to get in touch with them.

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Keene, New York doesn’t expect to grow that much, surrounded by the Adirondack Mountains. But it does expect its children to grow and thrive.
In a school system where there are 200 students, K-12, there are no anonymous faces. When a graduate fails to complete college, “it’s like your own child came home from school,” said Superintendent Cynthia Ford-Johnston.
But in a school with only 14 seniors, many things are possible. Seeking to forestall problems for all of them, not just the college-bound, the Keene Central School District and the community collaborated on Senior Survivors seminars.
These were seven sessions “designed to help to ensure our students’ survival once they go out into the work force or into college,” Ford-Johnston said. Six of them were handled by local teachers, parents and helpers, but one involved reaching out about 120 miles to Union College in Schenectady.
The subjects of the seminars were meant to “level the playing field for all of our kids,” some very sophisticated and some very isolated, Ford-Johnston said. The themes were:
–Transportation, including such things as how to read a bus schedule, and what it’s like trying to buy a car.
–Social interaction, particularly the way it’s different in cities, where you try to avoid eye contact rather than wave and say hi, and where you make sure to ask the right people for directions.
–Financial issues, such as dealing with college debt, and understanding what credit card debt looks like over a 20-year period.
–Finding resources, for instance by networking through social groups, or taking part in church life.
–Legal obligations, whether living in a dormitory or renting an apartment.
–Housekeeping skills, to make sure newly independent youths can get their laundry done properly, shop wisely, and so on.
–Social skills in a college environment.
For this last subject, they called on Tom McEvoy, Dean of Residential and Social Life at Union College. He said he doesn’t often get such requests, but loves to talk to groups of younger students that way and would be glad to help other FES schools.
Sometimes high schoolers have unrealistic and unhelpful images of college, McEvoy said to the seminar. For instance, in the residence halls, “I see many students coming in with preconceptions that their roommate is going to be their friend for life. That realistically is often not the case.”
Though studies are obviously the main priority, he told the Keene group, a college environment offers many chances to be active, get involved, and take a leadership role. Whether it’s in a student organization or activity or sometimes to do with the class, take a chance, grow a bit, become the leader you didn’t think you could be.
And of course there was sage advice about drugs and alcohol. McEvoy said it was good to have the students and their parents in the same room, because probably what he said confirmed a lot of things the parents had already talked about.
“It was a great program,” McEvoy said of the Senior Survival series–something he wished he could have experienced before college. As for his part in it, “if my school allowed, I’d be happy to do it all the time.”
Ford-Johnston said there is one more step left for Senior Survivors: a dinner along the lines of the TV “Survivor” series, complete with appropriate decor like tiki lamps. Another lesson well-known to FES schools: celebration is part of education, too.

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It’s a considerable distance from North Country Union High School, close to the Canadian border, to most places in Vermont, let alone Harlem and Broadway.
But this spring, once again, FES coordinator Cheryl Currier, dance teacher Cheri Skurdall, and Spanish teacher Helen Poulin took a group of students from Newport to New York. It was the 12th time Currier had traveled from apple-growing territory to the Big Apple in the past six years, either personally or with school groups.
“I am a native Vermonter–with a passion for New York City,” Currier said. Not only is it culturally unique, “I feel safer at 1 a.m. in Times Square than I would downtown in any city in Vermont,” she said.
This trip came about through networking at a national FES conference.
Currier said it was more than a case of country kids getting a look at city life, because the 29 ninth through twelfth graders included 22 girls who were members of the school’s dance troupe. The Dance Company had rehearsed six numbers to present for adjudication at Steps on Broadway, a school where they were also to
take classes in ballet, jazz dance and modern dance.
But the group ís first destination was a school North Country had contacted through FES.
After starting at 4 a.m. on Friday, they arrived seven hours later at the Academy of Environmental Sciences, a multicultural school in New York City ís Spanish Harlem neighborhood. There, the dancers would have a chance to warm up for their judged performance by doing their six numbers for some of the AES elementary students and students of their contact, AES’s Heide Goertzen.
The program including one hip-hop piece–and that, said Currier, was a test of nerves. How would their performance come across, on hip-hop’s authentic home ground?
“They were received by a very enthusiastic crowd,” she said. “There was clapping and cheering,” and by the end, “they were all up on stage dancing together. It was awesome.” And in true FES fashion, pizza and socialization–not always in that order–followed the show.
It was an “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” moment. But it was just the start of a weekend orchestrated by Skurdall and by Currier, who fantasizes sometimes about being a tour guide in her “golden years.”
If you know New York, she said, a many-splendored visit doesn’t have to be a many-spendered thing. Their nighttime accommodations, for instance, were at a 300-bed, budget-friendly hostel known as Jazz on the Park located on Central Park West.
Having checked in, the group hopped on the subway and went to Times Square. Currier knew a place there called TKTS, where it’s possible to get cheap same-day tickets to top Broadway shows. On this trip, appropriately enough, “Cabaret” and “Rent” were accessible.
Saturday, the dancers took ballet at Steps on Broadway–whose programs serve professionals like Broadway cast members–then it was time to see some of the sights. Lincoln Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Plaza, the GE Building–and something called the Museum of the City of New York.
What better way to see a lot of New York than to get to a museum dedicated to its many historical transformations? Currier said it’s part of a whole line of such attractions situated along the so-called “Museum Mile.”
After dinner, there were more TKTS to Broadway. Various groups went to “I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change,” the American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, and “Barbra’s Wedding.” At the latter, Currier and two students met with the play’s two characters after the show and had their picture taken with them.
North Country’s principal Bill Rivard, the Principal and his wife met the teachers and students in Times Square and visited for awhile before the group headed back to the hostel. The two also went to Steps to watch the girls take a modern dance class on Sunday.
“I gave him an itinerary knowing that he and his wife were ‘mini-vacationing’ in the city that weekend, and we were all pleased that he took the time to meet with us,” said Currier. “It was a surprise meeting.”
Sunday was the big day for the dancers: morning classes at Steps on Broadway, then from 3-6 p.m. their performances, followed by extensive, detailed, fully professional critiques. Those not in the company went to attractions like the Frick Museum and Tiffany’s (just looking), and took a horse and buggy ride in Central Park.
In the evening, the whole group went to dinner and explored in the Greenwich Village area.
Monday was the day to go back, but not before taking in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum–another concentrated dose of history along with the fun. “The bus picked us up in Times Square,” Currier said.
Do such trips have a deep and lasting effect? Apparently so: two of last year’s FES New York City trip students decided to apply to schools there, Currier said, and one has been accepted at New York University.

A THANKSGIVING TO REMEMBER–TROPICAL STORM IRENE

The flooding from Tropical Storm Irene may have been a 100-year event, but Vermont is a 250-year event, and the damage was no match for the state’s community spirit.
This year, as ever, visitors flocked to the Green Mountain State to see it change color during foliage season. They came too soon to experience something just as extraordinary, if with a less immediately evident rainbow blend: Thanksgiving after a period that at first seemed to have little to inspire thankfulness.
National media were behind events in predicting that Hurricane Irene’s landfall would cause few difficulties, then behind the times again when they overplayed the resulting Vermont disaser. Only days after headlines about downed bridges, roads turned into ravines, and towns left isolated except for those with all-terrain vehicles, almost all those roads were passable, no one was isolated, and towns were expressing determination to restore their historic bridges.
At Thanksgiving, as ever, there will be places offering free dinners to all comers, no questions asked. This time, everyone who takes part will be remembering how everyone with earthmoving equipment leaped into action and worked to their limits helping with the emergency, no call for volunteers needed. Those serving the turkey, dressing, potatoes, vegetables, and pumpkin pie and those holding out their plates will be know they are echoing the way people brought food to emergency workers, took in strangers who had been left homeless, came to coordination centers to find out how they could assist, organized benefit events, and both at those events and in churches and at schools and at store counters, gave until it hurt because they knew they had neighbors, near or far, who were hurting.
Around the family dinner table, along with saying grace, many will be thinking “There but for the grace of God.” If our home had been beside a picturesque brook that almost shrank to a rivulet in dry seasons, but suddenly turned into an overflowing Roaring Branch post-Irene, we wouldn’t be sitting at our accustomed places. If we had been earning our living farming, and had not only seen most of our crops go bobbing downstream but also much of the land on which they had been growing, we might not have had much fun carving a big grin on a Halloween pumpkin, and the taste of one in a pie might well have been spiced with bitter remembrance. In a disaster there may be fault lines, but not fault, and if the brook knew no boundary, neither should our generosity.
Along with the family stories, there will be “have your heard about” stories from the flood, to be followed by others in the spirit of “can you top this one?” Did you hear about Black River Produce, which brings food from a hundred farms and from regional suppliers to its North Springfield warehouse then travels to three states to resupply hospitals, schools, inns, restaurants and more? For the first time in 30 years, the day after the flood they couldn’t make any deliveries, because the workers couldn’t get to the warehouse. But by the end of the week, they were delivering everywhere again, except Killington.
So Killington came to them. Residents with four-wheel-drive pickup trucks formed a convoy that threaded its way along remote dirt roads and logging trails past the upheaval that had been Route 4, then made its way to the Black River Produce warehouse, where they took on the shipments intended for the Killington area and made the trek back again. And so on and so on.
But beyond sharing stories of triumphs over adversity, this Thanksgiving is likely to be a time for reaffirmation, resolve, and avowed determination. The big dinner’s leftovers will be a lot more fun to deal with than those of the flooding. If freedom requires eternal vigilance, so also community spirit calls for an enduring commitment. The spirit of fellowship at Thanksgiving dinners will be a reminder of the need to look beyond oppositional differences to realize what we have in common is much greater and much, more important. If the disaster bearing the name Irene only teaches that lesson, it may be worth whatever restoring the state costs.
Because we are entering a time of great dangers, of which the recent flooding may be only the first. There is around Vermont an unspoken realization that what happened once can happen again, and might in another season take on some equally disastrous form, such as an ice storm. This time there were no hurricane winds; the next time we may not be so lucky. And so on and so on.
The sacrifices made to help neighbors in an obvious time of travail may not be more difficult than taking the many small steps necessary to reverse a headlong course that reckless use of energy has set us upon. But what happened post-Irene can and should remind us that everyone’s help is needed, and even the smallest contributions are important to making a difference.

HANDS OFF MY 16TH AMENDMENT

HANDS OFF MY 16TH AMENDMENT

In case anyone hasn’t noticed: the constitutional doctrine known as “originalism,” which holds that the document created by the Founding Fathers is the one true description of the roots of our legal system and must not evolve or be adapted to changing social circumstances—a view espoused by certain Supreme Court Justices and by various inquisitors of potential Justices within the Senate—is countermanded both by the provisions of the Constitution itself and by the history of its adoption.
First we had the Articles of Confederation, which set up a central government so weak that by general agreement it could not pass muster as a force for uniting the very quarrelsome former 13 colonies. So much for original wisdom. Revision was the order of the day, and the Articles of Confederation were revised by adopting the Constitution.
But among its wiser provisions was a clear recognition that the original document might not be adequate to the purposes it had set out. Amendments were possible, and very quickly the sainted Bill of Rights was tacked on. How many amendments have been added since? I had to look it up, too. There have been 27, including the 16th, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor/alcohol, and the 18th, which acknowledged that the 16th had been a bad idea. A journalist of the time put it this way:

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s filled the land with vice and crime,
It’s left a trail of vice and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime.
Nevertheless, we’re for it.

As much as to say, the Constitution has always been in Contention, and likely always will be. If any amendments are sacred, so are they all, though apparently they aren’t.
Which brings us to the Second Amendment, concerning the right to bear arms. Arms Bears, I will gladly let you have your way with the Second Amendment if you will keep any cold dead hands off my Sixteenth.
That’s the one that is often said to allow the income tax, though some argue that the right to enact it was there in the original Constitution. Rather, they say, the 16th, backed by a Supreme Court ruling three years later in Brubaker v. United Pacific Railroad, made it clear that Congress did not need to apportion such a tax among the states according to population. Three-quarters of the 48 States had approved the 16th by 1913, and ultimately 42 did, Vermont among them.
The big fight was over the “progressive” income tax, which meant setting the tax rate progressively higher as income rose. It’s about the only way we have left to counter income inequality that has been likened to the kind we used to condemn as elitist in Central America and to the Gilded Age, aka The Age of the Robber Barons in the 19th century.
Did you know that the top 400 people’s incomes equal those of all the rest of the US? (source WNYC on Sunday, Mar. 2, 2013)

LANGUAGE LEARNING–CLIFFORD

(in the Valley Voice 2003)

MIDDLEBURY _ Middlebury College language schools commencement speaker Ray Clifford started off with a light and humorous touch, but by the end there was no mistaking the seriousness of his message.
Anyone who has been to Europe and has seen Europeans who know two or three languages talking with Americans who expect everyone else to know English will be prepared for that message: this country is woefully deficient in foreign language skills. And few people are more qualified to give that opinion than Clifford, chancellor of the Defense Foreign Language Institute’s Foreign Language Center–the country’s largest language teaching institution.
Far from being a merely academic matter, this is affecting national security and global economic competitiveness, Clifford said. There, too, he has strong credentials.
Previously head of the CIA Language Schools’ Slavic and German Department, he is also chair of the NATO Bureau for International Language Coordination; a consultant for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ Proficiency Testing Programs, and a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Steering Committee for Foreign Languages.
He’s been given the Army’s decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service for his work. After Friday, his honors included an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College.
“Language is the most complex of human behaviors,” Clifford said, as failed attempts to communicate show. Like the Hong Kong tailor shop that advertised, “You may have a fit upstairs.” Or the Norwegian establishment that told patrons it was “illegal to have children in the bar.”
Context gives meaning, Clifford said. “Get the phone” by itself might mean to go ahead and buy it, fetch it from someplace, or answer it.
Headline writers sometimes miss this point, he said. “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms.” “Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendants.” “Defendant Gets Nine Months in Violin Case.”
The Preamble of the U. S. Constitution, he said, gives the reason why teaching foreign languages is a national issue: “to provide for the common defense.” Our enemies may sometimes be able to speak English, but “they do not speak English when they are talking about us.” It’s usually possible to buy something abroad knowing only English, he said, but “the seller needs to speak the language of the country.”
This country’s language problems go back into the 19th century, when the only foreign languages taught were Greek and Latin, Clifford said. When it was finally admitted that other languages were worth studying, they were studied like the classics, for the ideas expressed in them, not as a way of communicating.
In World War I (1914-1918), when Middlebury College was starting its German School (1915), French School (1916) and Spanish School (1917), most Americans were developing a deep distrust of foreign things, Clifford said. Laws prohibiting or restricting the teaching of foreign languages were on the books in 22 states, until the Supreme Court invalidated them in 1923.
In 1940, with World War II already under way in other countries, a national report “What the High Schools Ought to Teach” said getting rid of foreign language instruction would save students time and would help keep the schools from being “overly academic.” Lack of interest came close to implementing that idea: by 1954, the book “The National Interest and Foreign Languages” reported that only 14.2 percent of high school students were in such a course, and 56 percent of the schools had no courses at all.
Sputnik, in 1957, helped spur the National Defense Education Act. But as its funding for teaching training dropped, so did the positive effects.
In 1975, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement wanted to study “The Teaching of French as a Foreign Language in Eight Countries.” They had to settle for seven: they couldn’t locate enough high school seniors with four years of French to do their study as it was designed. Four years later, in 1979, the President’s Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies gave its own finding: “Americans’ incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous, and it is becoming worse.”
In a similar speech elsewhere, Clifford quoted a “senior “Department of Defense official” in 1999 as saying, “We face a number of challenges in meeting the immediate and long-range language needs in the Department of Defense _ and these are mirrored in every federal and state government, in the courts, in non-governmental organizations, and in corporations doing business overseas.”
“Perhaps the greatest challenge we face,” the DOD official said, “is the general apathy toward learning foreign languages.”
Solutions first proposed in 1961 still would help, Clifford told the graduates:
_ Have eight- or 10-year programs at the pre-college level.
_ Require that would-be college students demonstrate proficiency, not just list years of classroom seat time.
_ Require that graduating college students know a second foreign language, especially one that is non-Western.
This issue may be quiet now, Clifford said, but it will heat up in 2004, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress for the first time has a foreign language component. The results will be poor,he predicted (he told one group focusing on excellence in education that it was premature to talk about excellence in foreign language learning, because “we have yet to attain mediocrity”), and there will be headlines, at least for a little while.
When that happens, he told the future language teachers, translators, researchers, and so on, make sure blame doesn’t fall on the teachers and students. It’s a systemic problem, he said, of just not enough time on task to get the job done.
Like the time a bureaucrat wanted to help a farmer do a better job, and the farmer said, “I already know how to farm better than you will let me.”
If there is ever to be world peace, language learning is essential, Clifford said. Peace depends on understanding, which depends on communication, which depends on language, he said.
Clifford quoted philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
–30–

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S GREAT SPEECH ON DEMOCRACY

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (WU PensacolaBeachsunset)

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.
-Indira Gandhi

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Sir Winston Churchill

• Arguably the best-known American of his generation, Thomas Edison (1847-1931) was considered to be retarded at school due to his hearing difficulty, and attended only occasionally for five years. Despite this inauspicious start Edison unquestionably changed the world, holding as he did 1,093 patents singularly or jointly. Yet the most prolific inventor felt he had only scratched the surface of the possible. “Until man duplicates a blade of grass,” he once said, “nature can laugh at this so called ‘scientific knowledge’,” adding, “We don’t know one millionth of one percent of anything.”

VIETNAM, IRAQ, & BEYOND

VIETNAM, IRAQ, AND BEYOND
`
This entry takes its title from a Nov. 29, 2003 Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times, in which he announced the winners of his Name That War contest, from the 4,000 of so people who sent in suggestions.
There were duplicates: Bubba’s War, Burning Bush, Bush League War, Bush’s Folly, Iraqgate, Iraqnam, Iraqmire, Operation Quicksand, Shrub’s War, and The Crawford Conflict apparently arrived by the hundreds. Bushkrieg and Operation Bushwhack Iraq were along the same lines.
Then the true jokesters, one of America’s enduring strengths, got to work. Kristof said he didn’t see why anyone would suggest that Operation Iraqi Liberation should replace the official Operation Iraqi Freedom, until he realized the three initial letters were O.I.L. Another wit suggested Mother of Oil Wars.
There were names that could have titled bestsellers: Bush’s Botch, The Iraq Preemption, The Big Uneasy, The Bush Incursion. One was Biblically literate: Visit Scenic Sodom and Gomorrah. Popular culture, that favorite topic of angry ayatollahs, irate imams and moralistic mullahs, suggested others: Apocalypse Right Now, Mission Implausible: A Job Well Spun, Operation Kick the Dog, Operation Oops, We Did It Again, The Empire Strikes Out, and Trek 2: Wrath of Neo-Khan. Someone familiar with The War of Jenkins’ Ear chimed in with The War of Bush’s Flight Suit, and another offered The War That Cried Wolfowitz.
King George’s New Colony, put in a history buff. Others tapped English history for The Charge of the Right Brigade and The War of the Roves. Vermont’s own Donn Blodgett put together a sophisticated French pun: Coup d’Etats Unis, that wrongheaded country’s name for us being Les Etats Unis (the states united).
Wrapping up the contest, awarded Honorable Mentions to A’bombin’nation, Desert Storm und Drang, Iraq: A Hard Place, Operation Unscramble Eggs, The ‘Raq, Tigris By the Tail, and War of Mass Deception.
The winners, who got 250 dinar notes with Saddam Hussein’s picture on them from Kristof’s last trip to Crisis and Cruel Fates (there’s my own entry, belatedly) were, in the order that he listed them,
–Dubya Dubya III
–Rolling Blunder
–Desert Slog
–Mess in Potamia (Vermonter Will Hutchinson)
and
–Blood, Baath and Beyond.

That was nearly four years ago. As someone who was draft age during the Vietnam War, here are four ways in which this conflict and that one resemble each other:
–We patrol, they ambush, and our soldiers come back crazed.
–They are willing to give their lives, but our allies aren’t (unless they’re fighting each other).
–It drags on and on and on, against all reason, burning up our resources and threatening to leave a legacy of problems as difficult to solve. (Did you know that to finance Vietnam we had to raise interest rates to attract foreign capital, thus increasing the burden of Third World debt payments, thus inspiring the Oil Producing and Exporting Cartel, whose price hikes devastated us in the 1970’s?)
What might fill the streets with protesters, and possibly bring this wretched affair to an end, is an incursion into another country like Nixon’s crossing of the border into Cambodia (that and the Kent State killings inspired the “Kentbodia” mass demonstrations and other actions). Then there might national consensus “Stop him. Stop him before he does something even worse.”
This administration has already brought us a Blood Baath (Saddam’s party was the Baathists); now it’s time to make sure they don’t go Beyond.

–This was prior to Afghanistan.

TORTURE–TORTUOUS EXPLANATIONS

TORTURE–TORTUOUS EXPLANATIONS

(written during the Bush administration)

We have been told by our leaders that putting someone in a tiny, lightless cell for 40 days and nights is not torture. I know better, because I have seen what two weeks of such sensory deprivation will do to a healthy young Vermonter.
I hope he is well, and if by any remote chance he recognizes himself in what follows, I hope he will get in touch. Especially I hope this if he has led an untroubled life, because he will always be one of my heroes.
The scene is Vermont’s annual State Science Fair, in the year 1964. I have made my presentation to the judges, and now I have time to walk around and see what others have done.
My father urges me to pay attention to one disheveled presenter who stands at a table with no posters, no equipment, no display except an opened notebook. Later I will realize that for years Mr. Barna had been teaching his Otter Valley English classes Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” set in a Communist prison during the Cold War, and probably that was behind the urgency with which he made his recommendation.
The “experiment” that the young man conducted was in the field of psychology, and the subject of the experimenter was himself—certainly not the traditional scientific method of verifiable objectivity, but very much in the spirit of many pioneering scientists. He had decided to spend two weeks in the space under his house’s stairwell, without any source of light, to see what effect the experience would have on his thoughts.
He came close to spending the next few weeks in a mental hospital. Hallucinations, often very disagreeable, were only part of the torment he forced himself to go through. When I spoke with him, he still seemed shaky.
But he came out of it bearing knowledge that our present-day leaders could learn from: a human being is not separable from the environment the senses re-create, and in particular is not separable from other people. When the science fair prizes were announced, I won a first in chemistry, and he got nothing. My father and I were both outraged. This and other frustrations with trying to do science at the high school level diverted me from an intended career as a researcher, ultimately into poetry. Literature, you can do anywhere, with minimal equipment—like the political prisoner who wrote her works on bars of soap, memorized them, then washed away another day.
This was the period of my life when I was enamored of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of radical individualism, expressed in such novels as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” I can’t say that I made the connection then, but now I will say it: this young man’s investigation, and many others showing that the ecological principle of interdependence applies just as much to people as to other organisms, have made it clear to me that Rand’s views are toxic gibberish. “When I was younger, young in oh so many ways/ I never needed anybody’s help in any way./ But I am older now and not so self-assured./ Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the door.”
To think that 40 days of such deprivation do not constitute torture reeks of the kind of extreme right-wing individualism that sees the person as the soul and as the personality, the one within the other inside the head, both changeless. It’s the same anti-psychological, anti-sociological view that sees education as clearly defined training, not a sometimes messy growth process, and thus sees the penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act as a way of making Schools (which exist independently of the people who constitute them) meet standards, so that students will be exposed to the right lessons and acquire the necessary skills, which will result in their giving the right answers on tests rather than flubbing the questions to get even with the system. It’s the same essentially punitive view that opposes any contact with countries that take stances vastly different than ours, such as Cuba and North Korea, then points to their deprived conditions as proof that their way of life is inferior to open (except for them) market capitalism. Always there is this nugget of supposed individualized indestructibility, the assumption that an individual or a nation that can be pushed around, penalized, forced and deprived, then have the necessary magnitude and leverage to change—always in the way that the punisher wants, never by making a deeper commitment to a contrary view or by devising subterfuges and sabotages or by waiting for the right moment to exact a fearsome revenge, or by inspiring family or friends or allies or the next generation to do so.
In the case of extracting information from prisoners at Guantanamera—did I misspell that?—the soul-persona view assumes that after 40 days in the dark, the mind that is left will 1. be capable of remembering information accurately, 2. be willing to deliver it completely; and perhaps most importantly 3. be capable of putting one word in front of another. Playing Nixon’s tapes educated the nation as nothing else could have; how about playing us some of the interrogations?
If there is any question, let’s make the experiment. Let some stalwart subordinate in the current Administration come forward and volunteer, not for going in harm’s way in Iraq or Afghanistan, but for a month in some former basement coal bin. Let them report on their experience with no initial debriefing or counseling or advising or threatening, on national television.
Guantanamo, that’s it. Guantanamera was a song the Cubans adopted almost as a national anthem—“With the poor people of the earth/ 
I want to cast my lot” is one translation of one of the most popular versions—as well as a Sandpipers hit parade success in 1966 and a staple of folksingers thereafter. And the Sixties, as the right wing has been assuring us for about the last half century, never really happened.

THIRD WORLD ATHLETES

THIRD WORLD ATHLETES

As the world follows the peregrinations, permutations and politicizations of the Olympic torch, and while this country follows and bets on the National Basketball Association championship, I’m collecting pictures of third world athletes.
Sometimes we get a glimpse of them, like the Maasai who ran the Boston marathon with spears and shields, chanting, the way they do chasing lions from their herds. East Africa’s runners—is it just a coincidence that the bones of the earliest humans were found in Olduvai Gorge, whose name comes from the Maasai word Oldupaai, for the wild sisal plant?–are so famous they’ve even been in a TV ad. It was one of the most subtle I’ve seen, deserving to be put in the commercials Hall of Fame, if there is one: a herder out in the arid Kenyan bush asks another herder, “How do you stop a rhino from charging?” Then he gives the answer: “You take away his American Express card.” “That’s good!,” says his interlocutor, “They’ll love that in Nairobi”—and he turns and starts running. The camera turns and shows a dusty road going up and down, up and down, into the invisible distance. Thirty miles to Nairobi? Sure, why not?
But back beyond this, I mean athletes like the workers in the sulfur volcano in Indonesia, who go down into the fumes and come back carrying 70 pound chunks of sulfur as if they were schoolkids carrying backpacks. Like the Laotian boatmen who have long, skinny, shallow craft that can speed when needed and navigate shallows when essential, which they pilot with poles, while standing upright in the stern. The peasant haymakers bringing back a wagonload of their harvest, pulled by a donkey, with the workers balancing on top of a load piled so high that it scarcely seems possible to have arranged it. The shipbreakers on the tidal mud flats of Chittagong, Bangladesh, about whose working conditions one observer said, “just a brief look around is enough for one to know that the working conditions found there would give an OSHA inspector instant cardiac arrest.”
To me, the glory of the Olympics and the championships is that they expand our ideas of what humans can do. We all gain respect for each other through such events: maybe we can’t do those things now, but in time, as our children’s children’s children to the seventh generation meet and marry, who knows?
The Third World athletes expand our ideas of what humans can endure.
So, as I weed old National Geographics that are threatening our foundations (Remember how Omya marble is used in the papermaking industry? This must be how) I look for pictures of these unregarded heroes and heroines—unregarded except for the photographers trying to pay attention to their settings and timing and not be overwhelmed by the inhumanity of it all.
Today, in one issue, I found three such athletes. Arguably four, since one picture shows candymakers in Kabul, Afghanistan, each wrestling with a huge rope of hardening sugar paste. The two turn out a thousand pounds of sherni a day.
Another picture shows the rice field worker in Japan, headed back home the same way he came: via a long path made of what look like two-by-eight boards, set in a staggered line about eight feet above a shallow river on top of poles and crosspieces. It’s not short walk: the end of the plank road is invisible in mist rising from the cooling water. One hopes the photographer had a telephoto lens.
When the work day is done, they relax: like the Zambian swimmer a foot away from the 365 foot drop of Victoria Falls, standing on the edge of an eight-foot-deep pool that somehow they discovered carved into the rock next to the waterfall. Deep enough for good underwater swimming, and probably no crocodiles, either. Just don’t dive in and come up forgetting which way you’re going.
There are towns in Vermont where the high schools have great athletic traditions that were raised into place by grandparents and great-grandparents who worked in mines and factories. There are factories in Vermont where the leaders will tell you the operation would have left the state long ago were it not for an incomparable work ethic, which in some cases they think may be founded on the work ethic of farming. Elsewhere in the world, the connection may not be so clear, but here at least we can appreciate that hard work can be athletic and heroic—and I hope in time we will honor all the other workers around the world for what they have suffered and survived, and what they have put into place.

THE REAL CONFLICT

THE REAL CONFLICT

Debate over who might be experienced enough to become President take for granted what “experience” means. Unfortunately, only a minority of the voters have had the experience of going to a liberal arts college where the professors would have flunked such superficiality.
History teaches that simply following the patterns of the past is likely to lead a nation astray as often as not. Psychology insists that someone who finds it difficult to learn from the experiences of others risks neurosis—that is, repetition of the same behavior regardless of whether or not it succeeds in what it seeks. Physics reminds us that entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, describes a universe in which things move from greater to lesser organization (ashes do not become firewood, for instance—which carries with it the corollary that any closed system will deteriorate. Biology points to evolution as the way life has increased in its organization and complexity: that is, the constant creation of new characteristics, some of which will eventually be keys to surviving a changing environment.
If the events of someone’s past reinforce certain beliefs and perceptions to the exclusion of others, that person can appear stable and strong and consistent—projecting the assurance that the comforting belief system provides. But as any builder can tell you, rigidity is not strength. Nor is inflexibility the same as acting according to principle. How many, many times someone is “born again” upon reaching the depths of dysfunction and despair—whereupon the convert, whose rejection of ambiguity and exploration and continual development has left a very happy sub-personality, goes about telling others who never wandered into such straits that THEY know better.
Yes, we are engaged in a long, long conflict, and have been for centuries. The enemy is not Islam; it is fundamentalism.
The late, great Norbert Wiener, an MIT genius who helped pioneer the “cybernetics” that in turn made possible the computer revolution, felt compelled to write a book of social observations titled “The Human Use of Human Beings.” At one point in his discourse, nearly a half century ago, he delivered a kind of parable about learning and vulnerability and growth that bears on our choices in 2008.
Why is it, he asked, that insect societies like those of ants and bees have never turned into civilizations, but those of apes have done so? The answer, he said, lies in a primeval fork in the road where evolving organisms had to go one way or another: whether to have an exoskeleton or an endoskeleton.
You know what an exoskeleton is. It’s the suit of armor that bugs wear, and which looks almost like a bug when it falls from the spider’s web, sucked dry. Under many circumstances, a toughened exterior can protect; under others, it will fail. (I think of the old argument during World War II between infantry soldiers and tank men: “You wouldn’t catch me in a big target like that!” versus “I’d never go walking along where I could get shot at any moment!”) I have never driven a car with airbags, but have had five times when someone else’s car was coming at my four- or three-cylinder tuk-tuk in my lane, and so far have always been able to dodge (no bets on the next time). And so on.
Where the bugs lost out, Wiener said, was in having to metamorphose to reach mature size. Think of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly: nothing the caterpillar might have learned could survive such a transformation, and thus there has been no reinforcement for higher learning ability in caterpillars. Humans, on the other hand, gradually change size and shape, and the adult form is recognizable even in the womb (which may superficially resemble an egg, but is a far more environmentally oriented place). What is learned adds up, and as scientists say, the answer to one question leads to others. Don’t underestimate the foundation this creates; generally, a three-year-old has a better command of his or her native language than an adult foreigner who has studied it twice that long.
Paradoxically, in the long crawl-creep-run vulnerability proved stronger than toughness. Turning to this election, we have a choice between the cult of the Warrior—a belief that armed conflict is the greatest danger our nation faces, and should be our highest priority, whatever the cost—and a style of leadership emphasizing negotiation, cooperation, and (although the word will never appear in speeches) context.
For those of us who believe the greatest threat to humanity is too much humanity doing too many outdated things, the choice seems clear. But even without the likelihood of environmental catastrophe (future centuries will look at the extinctions of species, cultures and languages and say it already HAS been a catastrophe), do we really want to be riding into the World Wide Web in a Tank of State while our economic strength is slowly but surely drained away?