Musing miscellany

Four thoughts:

First.

The IRS scandal in the USA continues, although much of the mainstream media would have you know nothing about it. Here’s the latest. Lois Lerner seems to be toast, although the bread of her life may never feel the heat. The most intriguing part of the recent revelations is the notion that recovery of her “lost” emails is possible, but “too onerous.”

You think that defense is going to work for ordinary citizens in US courts of law? “I’m sorry, your Honor. Yes, I found the evidence the court demanded, but it is just too onerous, too much effort, for me to produce. Sorry. You’ll have to let me off.”

Second.

I heard a pundit on the radio refer to the “permanent cease-fire” in Gaza, between Hamas and Israel, that it is holding. Great. Isn’t that what a “permanent” cease fire should do?

What, I wonder, is the difference between a “cease-fire” and a “permanent” cease –fire? Written reports, here for example, are more cautious, describing it variously as “open-ended” (i.e. they could start fighting again any old time) to long-term (i.e. it will surely end one day.)

Sounds a lot like the status quo ante to me.

Third

On a lighter note, the ad guys at Molson have been “hard at work.” You need to see it; I can’t begin to describe it.

Funny, but why is it so many Canadians, who are so aggressively proud of their patriotism, seem not to know their national anthem? Don’t they watch hockey?

Finally.

I love Scotland, for a variety of reasons. Not least of which is that Scots do not speak English! They have a great accent, or more accurately a rich family of accents and dialects, but it is more than that. They have created many choice words for certain aspect of life. It has been decided to hold a referendum on independence. Independence? From the rest of the UK (for which read, “England, the bastaaaards.”)

Two new coinages have resulted. The referendum itself is affectionately referred to as the “IndyRef.” Quaint, cute, and mockingly not too serious. Should the vote go to the Yes side (“a consummation devoutly to be wished”) the entire non-Scotland part of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) will be “rUK.” “R” for remainder. Get it? Sound it out. Is it a statement or an interrogative?

I’d better get back to work.

Government’s true spirit

Once again; another article that reminds me of a difference that may be a flaw.

Mortimer Adler first gave broad support to the notion of an “American testament,” a small group of writings which articulate a foundational political doctrine. He wrote, for example:

To an astonishing and unprecedented degree, the United States was born out of sustained argument and grave political deliberation which committed this nation to a coherent political doctrine. That doctrine is set forth with an inspired brevity in a few momentous state papers–the first occurring at the moment of this country’s resolution for independence, the second at the moment of the new government’s formation, and the third at the moment of the major crisis in our national history.

Adler is referring, of course, to the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. (By the way, it is worth noting that Adler wrote extensively about this concept, as is clear in the short paper from which the quotation above is taken, in order to stimulate an awareness of the need for an educated citizenry and thus for the upheaval of real reform in the current educational system in the USA, a topic for another day. If you wish to read his more extensive treatment of the American testament see his book of that title.) It is Adler’s view that Lincoln in the last of the three documents showed brilliance in connecting his own advocacy of the foundational political doctrine with 1776 and the Declaration of Independence rather than with the Constitution, either its ratification in 1788 or its implementation in 1789 with the inauguration of Washington as first president.  The foundational principle, of course, is the bold assertion that “all men are created equal.”  In short, Lincoln’s “genius,” Adler’s word, is to indelibly connect this principle with the American form of government, namely “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Such a government, in other words, must be an incarnation of the principle of equality.

Which brings me back to the article with which I opened this post.

There is nothing startling about it. It is almost a routine, bland piece. What’s the point? The government of France has been summoned to re-form; the president has ordered the Prime Minister to recreate a new government due to the resignation of the current cabinet. This cabinet collapse in turn followed the rebellion against certain economic policies by two cabinet ministers and the subsequent offer of the prime minister to the president of the resignation of “the government.”

Americans must be baffled. Their befuddlement is an indication of a lack of awareness of and appreciation for parliamentary democracy. (Frankly, those living in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere with parliamentary systems, equally fail to grasp the American system. Again, another story for another day.) There are many virtues in parliamentarianism, but I want to focus on merely one, which the French kerfuffle illustrates, and which exposes much of the current frustration of many Americans in the USA with their own government. This frustration can be characterized as a perception of government as turgid, corrupt, self-serving, aloof, unresponsive, arrogant, self-serving, incompetent, over-weight,  and, did I mention?, self-serving. Anything but “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Parliamentarianism is, or at least can be, immediately responsive.

A general election, usually scheduled five or six years from the previous, can be called at any time. A vote of “no confidence” in the government can precipitate a change and bring about a new start, a fresh set of ideas, a new program of solutions. In the UK such called general election campaigns last little more than a month. This, of course, can in turn become a fault in a multi-party system with no single party in control of parliament and thus with governments cascading down like leaves in autumn. (Think of Italy not so long ago.) But, any virtue can become a vice.

From an American perspective, especially the current perspective on government, immediately responsive seems closer to the spirit of the American testament than frustrated, furious, and frightened waiting.

Papal mortality

I was struck the other day by an odd coincidence.

(As an aside I would mention that I was taught, about coincidence, that either there is no coincidence ever or that everything is always coincidental, i.e. that nothing is a coincidence or that everything is. In either event, the “odd coincidence,” such as that I am about to write about, the occasional and thus puzzling if not outright revelatory simultaneity between one event and another seemingly unrelated event, is illusory. I mention this philosophical reservation simply to keep my own conscience clear in what follows!)

The odd coincidence begins with the Pope’s statement, reported here, that he expected to be “off to the house of the Father” in no more than two or three years.

(Another aside: in that same statement Pope Francis openly speculated about the possibility of retiring from the papacy before that time, despite the fact that “the theologians” disapprove. Citing the fact that many bishops nowadays retire, which previously was unheard of, and the precedent recently set by Pope Benedict XVI, he sought to set it up as a possibility if not a new papal norm. Given the age of most of the cardinals, from whose number a new pope is almost always chosen, although any baptized catholic male is eligible, papal retirement may indeed become usual.)

That statement is event one in the odd coincidence.

Event two was the tragic news that tumbled upon the heels, within 19 hours of event one that three family members of Pope Francis had died in an Argentinian car accident. The driver of the car was 35 years old.

The future is what will happen despite our plans to make it happen. Thus, the present moment is the Eternal Now. Failing to love in this moment is failing to love; failing to show compassion in this moment is failing to show compassion; failing to embrace hope in this moment is failing to embrace hope. The past is mostly the time of our failing, of postponing or missing moments of the Eternal Now. “Next time, “we say. “Next time I will do the right thing.” Such missed moments never return. There never is a next time for Now.

The odd coincidence can be revealing.

Dancing round the issues

What’s to say? As an American, I mean. And, to and for Americans

The USA, I think joined by the UK, is dropping bombs again in Iraq.

Meanwhile the National Guard has been ordered in to Ferguson, Missouri, where, if leaked autopsy reports are to be believed, Michael Brown was shot six times, twice in the head and where, if his family’s allegations are correct, Brown stood with his hands up in the classic posture of surrender.

Former NBA basketball star and now commentator on matters social, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, has this to say (it ought to bear a warning label “Hard to hear.”)

Read it? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

America sweeps its weary way towards November and yet more elections, that periodic dance of democracy that swoops us up in the rhythm of “making a difference,” even “hope and change.” But there is too much evidence encouraging too much cynicism thus discouraging too many to put on their dancing shoes. The dance has lost its magical allure, it would seem.

Check out, if you haven’t seen it already, Jeff Daniel’s rant as Will McAvoy in the HBO series The Newsroom.

“It’s not. But it can be.” Ah, there’s the rub. These polar options are the two notes of America’s new dance to tomorrow.

Cri de coeur

Along with many others I was saddened by the news of Robin Williams’ death the other day. There has been so much commentary on it since that I hesitate to offer more. But, the point I want to make I have not seen or heard elsewhere and it is the one that strikes me the most.

Let me begin by asking a question. Answer, if you can, without the aid of Google search!

Who is Tom Schulman?

I read on the internet the day after Williams’ death that Amazon.com’s sales of his movies had soared and that at the top of the list was Dead Poets Society. I noticed this because that day my younger son had sent me a clip of the Carpe Diem scene. In the context of Williams’ death the words hung heavy with a new meaning. When I finished watching the clip I clicked on some others on the “You may like” list and especially enjoyed the YAWP scene before finding myself spinning off into the hilarious, yet poignant hilarity of, Good Morning Vietnam and others, until I found myself watching Al Pacino’s defense of Charlie as an authentic  “Baird man” from Scent of a Woman.  Clicking links can lead you far afield!

Oh yes! Tom Schulman. He wrote Dead Poets Society.

There has been discussion of possible causes or contributors to Robin Williams’ suicide (recurrent addiction, depression, pending bankruptcy, several marriages, the untimely loss of good friends ….Reeves, Hoffman and Belushi especially …. and a brother with subsequent survivor’s guilt.) But, more significant perhaps was his inability to cope with the Schulman syndrome.

Let me hasten to emphasize that in speaking of Schulman I am not speaking of him as an individual at all, but as a symbol. Any other screen-writer would have done. It just so happens that Dead Poets Society has featured in my and many others’ personal recollections over these past days.

What is the Schulman syndrome? It is the inevitable awareness in the actor that his or her best words, most remembered words, most loved words, the words that we, the public, identify as theirs, indeed identify as them, are not their own at all. Theirs the delivery, the embodiment, the … yes, I have to say it … enactment, but all is derivative even dependent upon someone else’s words.  

How is an actor to cope with this massive reality, that their public persona is not really their authentic self; that the Schulman syndrome is the price of having something to say? Some actors live in remote locations, almost as social hermits, others throw themselves into charity or political work, while still others evolve in the movie world itself as directors, say.  Robin Williams knew that we all love John Keating, for example, while at the same time not knowing Robin Williams at all. Is it possible that Williams’ brilliant but almost manic extemporizing was a screaming proclamation, “I have something to say too?”

Is it possible that we were so busy laughing we failed to detect the cri de coeur?

Of cell phones and souls

A few thoughts on communication. These may be “scattered” but bear with me and I think you will get what I am after.

First, the news right now can seem overwhelming. Quantitatively and qualitatively.

There is so much that is “bad news.” The Ebola outbreak; Gaza in flames and Israel under fire; the advance of the Islamic State and the resultant plight of Kurds, Christians, and other obscure minorities; the southern border crisis now involving the murder of a Border agent in front of his children; chatter about impeachment of the president as an electoral device desired by his own party to bolster their chances this Fall; the now almost boring-by-familiarity Ukraine situation; poll after poll displaying the total loss of confidence of the American people in, at least their elected officials, if not in their system of government. I could go on and on. Oh yes, a hurricane double-whammy is smashing in to Hawaii as I write.

A question occurs to me: is it true that “things are getting worse” or is all the above merely an illustration of instant communication? In the pre-digital age such things happened. Was is that either we simply never heard about them or by the time we did they were solved, or ended, or completed, and thus, in either event, things never quite seemed to be so overwhelmingly bad?

Is today’s state of the world a cipher of instant communication and thus of perception only and thus not requiring any urgent response on the part of anyone?

Second, cell phones are an ambiguous blessing.

My household is typical of many, I think, in that we have no land line anymore. The cell phone is much “smarter” than any landline ever was. Not only can it receive and make calls and messages, but it delivers a cascade of information whenever I punch a few buttons: golf scores, futbol transfers, the weather both local and across the globe, driving times to destinations with up-to-the-minute traffic status, the news, hotel booking services, and so on and on, embracing all the rich wonders of the entire internet to the palm of my hand.

But, it also offers an unintended dark side of efficiency. Because it is small as well as smart everyone who has my number knows it can easily be on my person at all times. This creates a subtle and bothersome pressure to always answer whenever it rings. If I ignore it and eventually cave in and answer I am sometimes greeted not by a cheery “Hello, how ya’ doin?” but an irritated “Where have you been? Why didn’t you answer?” For those who remember the land line only days, this never happened. Nobody ever questioned an unanswered ring. It was almost normal. In fact, ignoring the ring was a rule in my family of origin during meal times. Indeed, in the pre-answering machine days not answering the phone was a common option. Now with cell/smart phones not answering signals to the caller that you may be lying at the side of the road in need of medical assistance or even more unthinkable, simply not in the mood to talk. Not talk? To me? Unthinkable.

These days are not only days of instant communication, but of instant gratification. We seek satisfaction right now, not just of our appetites, but of our every whimsical need.

Is all this instant gratification erasing from the cultural portrait the capacity to endure, to “put up with,” to “get on with?”

I suppose most seriously, this line of reasoning probes after the nature of the soul.

Chat about the soul is not widespread these days. Old time pastoral care used to be referred to as cura aminarum, “the cure of souls.” It was the highest project of the ecclesiastical mission. Today it has been replaced by the babble of counselling and self-discovery. This is sad and, I fear, possibly dangerous. For whatever else is meant by the soul it traditionally was the repository of authentic self-hood; the self which embraced the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of the individual; which was capable of contrition and confession, of compassion and sacrifice; which impelled patience, endurance, and forgiveness.

Soul virtues take time. And, there’s the rub. A cell phone is a poor instrument for soul cultivation.

Immigration legal and illegal

As the crisis on the southern border deepens it has struck me how many natural born Americans are ignorant about legal as distinct from illegal immigration. This ignorance is both inexcusable and source of much fuddled thinking, or perhaps feeling, about the situation on the southern border right now. As one who has been through the process of legal immigration, with a family of a wife and four children, I have been staggered to discover how unfamiliar many (most?) Americans are.  Thus:

Legal immigration was not restricted to a period in the past, centered on Ellis Island, which admitted vast numbers of Italian and Irish. It is an ongoing process, right up to and into the present day, even as 10’s of thousands of illegal immigrants enter the country.

The process that legal immigrants follow is what some politicians speak of as by-passing (the amnesty option) or curtailing for illegals.

The process is long, complicated, and in some aspects humiliating (female medical examinations for very young girls, for example.) I do not complain in any way about this process. One chooses to go through it and dealing with any large government bureaucracy is going to be a demanding task. Appointments have to be made with an embassy or consulate, in our case London, but such appointments are extremely difficult to set up by phone. We lived in Scotland and getting a day and time in London was the first, lengthy obstacle. There then followed a trip to London with all the family, with the lines, the waiting, the forms, the interview, the medical exams, the finger printing and the like. (The interview includes many bureaucratically odd questions, such as “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party or an agent of a Communist government?” Has anyone ever answered this in the affirmative?) Finally, at the end of a long day we were asked to return to an office at such and such a time the next morning with other members of our group to receive our documentation. One by one we were called up to a small window to receive them. Each person invariably turned around with a huge smile, waving them triumphantly. “See you in five years.” Long, testing, and hurdle laden. No matter:

All this is put up with for one reason and one reason only …. America.  

Five years??? Few Americans seem to know that upon admission as a legal immigrant a mandatory five year period is imposed before application for citizenship is permitted. In the interim a legal immigrant is given a card with his/her new official status: “Resident Alien.” Like ET! During this time the Resident Alien can work, earn money, pay taxes, but not vote. It is a form of taxation without representation. No matter:

All this is put up with for one reason and one reason only …. America.  

Then, at the end of the five year period, the Resident Alien faces another process, another encounter with the INS bureaucracy: the application for citizenship. This involves the famous “citizenship exam” which it is often said most natural born citizens would fail to pass. (In my experience this rumored failure rate of natural citizens is probably accurate.) The citizenship ceremony follows, a moving experience which totally caught me off guard. You have no idea of the emotion. On the day my family received their citizenship certificates and admitted as naturalized Americans, a roll call of countries took place. I can’t think of a country which was not represented! From the end of the five year period to that day, another six months had passed. No matter:

All this is put up with for one reason and one reason only …. America.  

One final thing: naturalized citizens are not 100% identical to natural born citizens, as the “birther controversy surrounding President Obama” brought to light. A naturalized citizen is barred from certain elective and appointed offices. No matter:

All this is put up with for one reason and one reason only …. America.  

In light of all this many of the sentimental and sugary, the bombastic and baffling, comments made by politicians who ought to know better are merely disgusting and ignorant. What is going on at the southern border is indeed a humanitarian crisis. But, it is not only a humanitarian crisis. It is a national security disaster and a mockery of the law. Immigration reform is one thing (interview those who have been through the process for ideas!), legal chaos is another. 

If immigration law is allowed to fall into the category of scoff-law the notion of the nation evaporates. No American should put up with it, for one reason and one reason only …. America.