Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Sign of the Time

What’s going on in this world? Whatever happened to serious discourse in our society? Was Paul Fussell right in his wildly reviled assessment of us as a nation in his otherwise acclaimed book “Bad or, the Dumbing of America?”

I thought of this the other evening when shooting the breeze with a group of friends the question of politics—what else?—came up. Now, I need to say at the outset that the subject of what I’m going to say is a delicate one, for at the core of it is this, my very blog, “The Power of Words.” I need to make sure that I don’t give the impression of being unable to take criticism. Believe me, as a translator and a writer I’m very much used to it.

But coming back to what is at issue. As I said, the conversation turned to politics, with the usual, rather too emphatic, points and counterpoints regarding Obama and the current mega debate about our calamitous health care system.

At some point, totally unintentionally on my part, my blog popped up in the conversation. Out of the blue one of my fellow breeze shooters said to me, “You know? You need to lighten your blog. Your subjects are too heavy. People don’t read this stuff. You bore them.”

I was surprised when others echoed this opinion. Now again, I didn’t take this as a referendum on my writing, for as I said criticism comes with the job. But what shocked me was the shallowness of the statement, expressed by one and sheepishly repeated by others. Essentially, it was said that an open and constructive discourse about our country’s problems is boring, it requires too much effort; that instead I should lighten my blog by writing about less serious topics. I suggested tabloid gossip, maybe pornography. I couldn’t distinguish the yeas from the nays so, not wanting to be unfair to anybody, I’ll leave it at that.

As to the above implied descent into shallowness, where many of us live in mediocrity, blind partisanship, denial, victims of our own gullibility, fleeced and gouged by a system gone wild, I say, Paul Fussell was right. We are witnessing the dumbing of America.

It’s a sign of our time.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who in Congress really cares about America

I’m a news freak. I’ve been a news addict since Walter Lippmann opened my eyes not only to the dirt, but also to a lot of good, that came out of Washington in those post-World War II days. I really believe that it is to him that I owe, at least in part, my devotion to national and world events, although I’m not sure whether this is a blessing or a curse. In any event, this addiction of mine led me to become utterly opinionated, much to the chagrin of my wife and the rest of my family. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

Now it so happens that fifty years after Walter Lippmann, I find that a lot has changed in America, but mainly at the grassroots level, where we the people have finally matured to the point of electing an African-American as our president. Something extraordinary in view of our almost 250 years of shameful bigotry. The American people deserve a big “atta boy” for this.

Regretfully, at the congressional level, in those hallowed halls that were the cradle of our democracy, a beacon on which most of the world pinned their hopes for peace, freedom and a better live, very little has changed over the decades.

Democrats and republicans are at each other’s throats, as usual. In yesteryears, when the democrats were the party out of power, they were the ones that vilified the republicans. Today, it’s the other way around. Except that the decibels are higher. The courtesy that should characterize the debates often turns into shouting matches and bitter exchanges. There is real anger, even hatred, in Congress.

After having watched the deeds and misdeeds in Washington for all these years, I ask myself, what has happened here? Why is it that the issue of our country’s public health care system (and yes, it is public, since it involves the American public in general) is stirring up so much more debate and controversy than any other crucial issue facing our country? I think I know the answer. It is because over the years the insurance companies, aided and abetted by a Congress open to hidden deals, hungry for so called “contributions,” were allowed to entrench themselves, to gouge the millions of Americans who could afford to pay the ever increasing premiums, and who did so, loyal to a system of which they thought as being a part.

But inevitably, the greed that for so long nourished the Wall Street behemoth and the insurance moguls who are ripping off Main Street turned out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The people got tired, and began asking questions. The clamor in Congress got louder, more acrimonious. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Rush Limbaugh and Ed Schults got more strident.

In the meantime the world is watching, puzzled, for it can’t understand what is happening here. In London’s pubs, Paris’ cafes, and Berlin’s cabarets there is laughter and satire directed at us. People there scratch their heads and ask, “What the devil is all the hullabaloo about. Why don’t the Yanks just come over and ask us how to do it?”

In the meantime, here at home, we the regular folks scratch our heads and ask, “Don’t those bozos on Capitol Hill care for us? Who really cares there about America?”

“Think I’m opinionated? Yeah, very much so.”

Friday, October 2, 2009

Freedom has many Faces

A few years ago I visited the American war cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha beach, one of the landing points for the invasion on June 6, 1944, where thousands of American troops lie buried. While wandering among the many gravesites in this poignant and eminently beautiful and peaceful place overlooking the English Channel, I was approached by a man easily recognizable as a German national.

“May I ask you a question, sir? You are an American, are you not?” he asked in heavily accented English.

Puzzled and somewhat unsure of how to answer the stranger I replied that yes, I was.

The stranger looked around and pointed an accusing finger at a group of American children running playfully between the Crosses and Stars of David in pursuit of some kiddy play known only to them.

“Look at that. Isn’t this shameful? Desecrating a hallowed place like this? You as an American, should go back and ask your president to order Hollywood to stop making gangster films and instead make movies that teach people, especially the children, respect for their dead soldiers. You ought to be ashamed.”

The man’s presumptuousness in lecturing me, and by extension my country, provoked me. I felt I had to answer him in kind.

“You obviously don’t know much about the United States,” I said, trying to sound as condescending as possible. “First of all, in my country the president cannot order Hollywood or anyone else what to do or not do. We call that freedom. That’s exactly what those who are buried here fought and died for. Freedom. They gave their lives protecting that very freedom,” I finished, and turned away.

The above event came to my mind today while listening to the acrimonious and often offensive invectives many conservatives in Congress throw against those who are seeking a comprehensive health care reform; seeing our society being polarized as never before; watching our overpolitized Congress as it leads us to the brink of social, economic and political catastrophe. A Congress where our elected representatives shamelessly give their own twist to our forebears’ ideals of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, where freedom and opportunity are distributed equally among all the people.

Contrary to what I said to that man in the cemetery above Omaha beach, I now do ask the president to rally his party’s majority in Congress to crush the rabid opposition to a public option in a reformed health care system. A public competition to the entrenched private insurance companies is the only way to arrest the insatiable greed of a private sector gone wild and repair the mess caused by decades of political negligence.

In a way, this too is a fight for freedom. Freedom for every American to have the health care we all deserve, without being gouged by the private insurance companies.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Does Anything Ever Change In Politics?

I can’t believe people’s fickleness. At the end of the Bush era everybody got hoarse clamoring for CHANGE, chanting YES, WE CAN, and now, only 8 months later, people let themselves be hoodwinked by a bunch of self-serving party hacks in the Congress of the United States, who instead of representing their constituents, side up with their real masters - the guys of Corporate America – in blocking that very change the majority of the people had demanded. One can only hope that at the very end wisdom will prevail, and people will finally come to realize that public options, like public schools, public transportation, public parks, public television, public safety, and yes, public health (like Medicare and Medicaid) don’t constitute socialism. Rather, they are what a modern democratic government is supposed to provide its citizens. Other countries, like the U.K., Canada, France, Argentina, and most others provide them, and nobody believes they are socialist countries.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: The Forger, by Cioma Schonhaus

A story of survival in wartime Berlin

Schonhaus’ description of the horrible conditions that prevailed in wartime Berlin is quite good. In The Forger he provided this reader a sense of the place that was convincing. One can see that the author knows Berlin. However, it is a story that has been written many times over. The "Last Jews In Berlin," by Leonard Gross, comes to mind. Being presented in the first person increases the story’s poignancy. Schonhaus' characterization of himself is quite credible, and it must be assumed that the original German version must read well. Unfortunately, the English translation is not as good as it could be. Finally, Cioma's crossing the Suisse border was rendered as being much too easy. The reader gets the impression that the author was in a hurry to complete the story.

Capitalism and the need for a Revolution in Spirit

An article by Benjamin Barber titled A Revolution in Spirit, published in the weekly The Nation, caught my attention not only for being well written but because it touches an issue dear to my heart, one that impacted my life in my younger years. In his article, Barber talks about the need for a revolution in the spirit in its relationship to culture, democracy, and ultimately to life. This, in my post-World War II years, was what some called Humanitarism, a doctrine that puts the spirit—with its ideals of peace, equality, and good will toward all—first. It is something I’d like to call now social capitalism.

Much has been written about the spirit of America, the wonderful force that became a beacon of hope and a cause for envy in much of the world. A spirit that, to a large extent, evolved from the rugged individualism that characterized the beginnings of the American experience. A spirit that produced our brand of capitalism, a force that not only propelled our country to become the richest nation on earth, but also, in tandem with our democratic ideals, helped the less fortunate in the world to alleviate in some extent their pervasive poverty.

But as the collapse of our present economic system demonstrates, not all is well with capitalism. Having won the Cold War, that not so symbolic struggle between Capitalism and Communism, we emerged as the sole undisputed super power. With our victory came the arrogance of the victor. The American spirit became the American hubris, and with it we began to lose many of the values that had made us great.

And now, in comes Obama. Not only is he a novelty for being our first African American president. That by itself is a milestone in the American experience. But he is exceptional in that he brings to the White House a unique intellect that with few exceptions was absent in many of its prior occupants.

One can only hope that President Obama’s call for change will help us break our cold and ruthless attitude toward what is right and wrong in our society. We definitely need a revolution in spirit, a reawakening of the spirit that once made us great.

We Americans are afraid of socialism. Maybe understandably so. But reining in capitalism in its rudest, often inhuman forms, doesn’t constitute socialism. It simply means that the government is responsibly carrying out the regulatory and oversight functions it is entrusted to execute.

The issue at hand these days is not the death of capitalism. I’d like to say that the real issue is to strengthen and purify capitalism, and thus prevent it from destroying our Western civilization as we know it.

Capitalism without morality cannot endure.