Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Quiet Joy of Christmas

December 25, Christmas Day, is reserved by Christians as the day they celebrate Jesus Christ's birth.  There is no real indication that the Christian Messiah was actually born on that day, but it was decided long ago, and there it is.   But little by little the reason for the season was crowded out; St. Nicholas came along and then morphed into Coca Cola Santa.  Pine trees were brought into houses and decorated with ornaments having more to do with sweet and cute than with Jesus.  Mistletoe hung over doors, candles twinkled in windows, and Currier and Ives made a fortune with their prints of winter scenes--a far stretch from the birthplace in Bethlehem.

The complaints about the secularization of Christmas have a certain legitimacy.  The celebration of a sacred birth has been usurped and turned into a holiday that bears no resemblance to the original intent.  Shopping is a major proponent of the new Christmas.  Drinking is right up there, too.  It wouldn't be Christmas without the traditional overindulgence.

But I maintain that there are enough joyous moments, quiet moments, loving moments--in fact, memorable moments at Christmas to keep the holiday sacred (as in protected and defended) in the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike.   We love the lights and the music, the laughter of little kids, the connections with friends and family near and far away.

Let's face it; Christmas is prime time for cliches.  Even the hardest hearts succumb to Christmas.  (There is a reason Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is dragged out, re-read, or re-made year after year.  We need to pretend the Scrooges will come around, if even for one day. )

I love the memories of candle-lit Midnight masses.  I'm still thrilled by Christmas hymns; in fact, this old heathen's dream is to sit in the Mormon Tabernacle and listen up close and personal to the Tabernacle Choir singing "O Holy Night"

Besides family images, it's the quiet winter scenes that, oddly, remind us of Christmas.  There is nothing religious about them, nothing having to do with the birth of a Messiah, but they stir feelings in us that we can't seem to do without this time of year. 


I wish love and joy and wonder to all.  I wish the weight of the world would come off the shoulders of those who are suffering, even today. I wish our memories would include them, even tomorrow.  I wish this wasn't just wishful thinking.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Amazing Endurance of Remarkable Words

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. . . Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. . Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you no sense of decency?    Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954

My mother and I were watching the hearings on our small black-and-white TV set that summer day in 1954--the day Joseph Welch calmly but forcefully challenged Joe Mccarthy's hold on the depths of the baseless paranoia both Washington and Main Street had been wallowing in for almost a decade.  I was sixteen years old but I've never forgotten the sound of Joseph Welch's voice--the mix of rage and sorrow as he spoke those words.

Something big happened then, and I'm remembering the look of amazement on my mother's face and my own feelings--of absolute joy and shuddering fear--when Welch finished talking.  The hearing room erupted into wild cheering.  Within minutes the room had emptied, every reporter rushing out to file the story.  I didn't know until I read it recently that afterward McCarthy looked around the empty room, threw up his hands and said, "What did I do?"  Within days the Senate voted to take his power away and, for all intents, he was done.

There are some who will always believe that Joseph Welch's words were what brought down McCarthy, stopping those meaningless, hateful hearings once and for all.  The fact is, for many years before there had been scores of people at work trying to expose the insanity of McCarthy's crusade against Communism--"The enemy within" that had all along been essentially toothless. (In 1952 Jack Anderson and Ronald May wrote "McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, the "Ism", spelling out his tactics, exposing his lies, and warning of the consequences if he wasn't stopped.)

Edward R. Murrow's "See it Now" program on March 9, 1954, broadcast three months before the Welch/McCarthy blow-up, was made up entirely of  footage and quotes by Sen. McCarthy himself--more damning than any second-hand account could have been.  On that same day, President Eisenhower wrote a letter to a friend criticizing McCarthy's approach (later telling an aide that McCarthy was a "pimple on the path to progress").

But what we remember today are Joseph Welch's words, used as a kind of easy shorthand to put a stamp on Joe McCarthy's downfall.

 Throughout our history, we've given certain quotes almost magical attributes in order to condense and clarify the stories behind them.  We want to believe that all it took was a single utterance and--poof!--life changed.

When Lincoln delivered his speech at Gettysburg in 1863, he said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . ."  He was wrong, of course.  Nearly every schoolkid learned "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . ."   I thought for years that it was the speech that ended the Civil War, and, by rights, it should have.  The speech contained phrases of such heartbreaking beauty, it should have ended any signs of conflict.  In fact, the war went on for more than two years--the final battles fought many months after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. 

In 1933, when FDR told the country during his first Inaugural speech, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself", there was plenty to fear that was much more tangible, but it was exactly what he needed to say at exactly that moment.  Did that one sentence ease the pain of the years to come?  No.  But it's a sentence etched into the American psyche, pulled out as needed, even now.

In 1961, John. F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."   Fifty years later, we're still repeating those words, hoping everyone else is listening.

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his "I have a dream" speech.  The entire speech is quotable, but he ended with these words:
. . .When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:   Free at last! Free at last!Thank GodAlmighty, we are free at last! 
The speech was widely covered (and was recently called the top American speech of the 20th Century), but racial inequality didn't end on that August day.  Some would say it hasn't ended yet.

In June, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and shouted "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Fully half our nation still believes that's all it took to tear down that wall, magically  ending the Cold War and easing any remaining misery.

Magic words.  Enduring words that live on through generations, through the shudderings of history, pristine and precise, owned by their creators without fear of creative editing or plagiarism. 

I thought about these words and their ultimate impact last week as I listened at different times throughout the day to Sen. Bernie Sanders as he stood at a Senate podium delivering his 8 1/2 hour marathon speech, knowing in his heart that the end result would be the same, with or without his mighty efforts.  As I listened, enthralled and grateful (wishing my mom could have been there), I wondered which of his words, if any, would be the magic words still resonating generations from now. 

Bernie Sanders is a plain-spoken Vermont man.  His words are rarely lush or even memorable.  I do not swoon when I hear Bernie speak.  I sit up and take notice.  Bernie had facts, he had figures, he had charts, he had tragic, poignant stories told to him by real people.  He repeated himself and apologized for it.  He wasn't reaching for the perfect sound bite. 

So will it be these lines that end up in Notable Quotes?

Eighty percent of all income in recent years has gone to the top 1 percent. The richer people become much richer, the middle class shrinks. Millions of Americans fall out of the middle class and into poverty.   That is not apparently enough for our friends at the top who have a religious ferocity in terms of greed. They need more, more. It is similar to an addiction. Fifty million is not enough. They need $100 million. One hundred million is not enough; they need 1 billion. One billion is not enough. I am not quite sure how much they need. When will it stop?
Or these?
If there is anything we can say about the American people, we work hard. We, in fact, work longer hours than do the people of any other country, industrialized country, on Earth. We are not a lazy people. We are a hard-working people. If the jobs are there, people will take them. If people have to work 60 hours a week or 70 hours a week, that is what they will do. But we have to rebuild this economy. We do not need tax breaks for billionaires. We need to create jobs for the middle class of this country so that we can put people back to work.
Or maybe these:
We all have our share of addictions. But I would hope that these people who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars will look around them and say: There is something more important in life than the richest people becoming richer when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Maybe they will understand that they are Americans, part of a great nation which is in trouble today. Maybe they have to go back to the Bible, whatever they believe in, and understand there is virtue in sharing, in reaching out; that you can't get it all.
   I think this is an issue we have to stay on and stay on and stay on. This greed, this reckless, uncontrollable greed is almost like a disease which is hurting this country terribly. How can anybody be proud to say they are a multimillionaire and are getting a huge tax break and one-quarter of the kids in this country are on food stamps? How can one be proud of that? I don't know.
This is good:
I think one simple thing we have to do is tell the crooks on Wall Street--and I use that word advisedly--history will prove that they knew what they were doing. They were dishonest. The business model is fraudulent. There are honest people who occasionally make a mistake, but there are other businesses that are based on fraud and assume they are never going to get caught. When they do get caught, the penalty they have to pay is so little that it is worth it because they end up getting caught 1 out of 10 times, but they make a whole lot of money, and then they pay a fine and somebody goes to jail--very rarely, though--for a year. That is what you are seeing on Wall Street.
 And this:
  So it seems to me we have to defeat this proposal, and that in defeating this, we are going to tell the American people there are at least some of us here who understand what our jobs and obligations are; that is, that we are supposed to represent them, the middle class of the country, and not just wealthy campaign contributors or bow to the interests of the lobbyists who are all over this place.

 Bernie Sanders, fortified with nothing more than a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee, stood on principal last week and spent an entire day talking to his colleagues, talking to the American people, talking to anyone who would listen.  He stood at a podium, never leaving for even a bathroom break, and talked until he could barely get the words out, until he could barely stand.  He wasn't filibustering; there wasn't anything yet to filibuster.  He was giving it all he had, because he believed purely, strongly, that giving a tax break extension to the top one or two percent of income earners was the absolute wrong thing to do.

You might not have known it if you were simply watching mainstream media that day, but the internet universe was erupting, exploding--passing messages all day long about Sen. Sanders and the fact that he was still speaking.  Twitter overloaded a couple of times (the top hashmark being #FiliBernie) even into the next day, as quotes from his speech were relayed. It was one of those moments.

I half expected Bernie to finish with the words of Joseph Welch:  "Have you no sense of decency, sirs, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"  Because if anyone knows from decency, it's Bernie Sanders

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

So what do you say, Toopers. Can we get a little help here?

The tax cut deal rewards Republican obstructionism by giving the wealthy the tax breaks they demanded.  It throws away precious resources needed for investments in jobs and our economy on upper income tax cuts that will do very little to propel economic growth—setting up excuses for the deficit hypocrites to argue for even more cuts to programs serving working families.  It lards the tax cuts for the top 2 percent with an indefensible cut in the estate tax – giving yet another bonus to the super-rich.  Taken together, this package locks in the growing income inequality that has plagued our country for at least another two years – and quite possibly much longer. 

It is unconscionable that the price of support for struggling middle class families and workers who have been unable to find jobs for months and months and months is yet more giveaways for our country’s wealthiest families.  Millions of jobless workers have lived in fear for months while Senate Republicans had the gall to use their hardships as political leverage for the benefit of the rich.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka

The Toopers, or the Two-Percenters,  the over-the-top Lords and Ladies of the Land (along with every single one of their Republican toadies and even a few Democrats--all of them high up there on Santa's Naughty List), just got the gift of their dreams from America's so-called leaders.  They got exactly what they wished for--again.

Rocks in their stockings is what most of them deserved, but instead, we the peons, the peasants, the huddled masses, the mythical "of the people, by the people, for the people", get to foot the bill for this wildly extravagant cave-in to the usual suspects.

President Obama said he had to give in to tax cuts for everyone because it was "abundantly clear" that the GOP wouldn't agree to anything else.  So that's it, then.  The marauders have taken over the village and the mayor, shaking in his boots, has handed them the keys.

Come out of the shadows, peasants, it's up to us now.  We can't physically fight them; they're too strong and the only ones with weapons are afraid of them. Multitudes who should be with us are victims of a crazy Stockholm Syndrome and are siding with the enemy regardless of some big time royal screwing.  Nobody is going to help us.  We're on our own.  We could use a Hobbit or two.   A Shrek would be good.  Inigo Montoya, where are you?  Paging Robin Hood.  Waiting. . .

In the War Room we've spread the constitution out on the table, pored over it 'till our eyes have gone fuzzy, looking for the one loophole that will stop this thing, this invasion, this onslaught.  Turns out the only loopholes are the ones the Toopers found.

Bugger! Foiled again!

But there is one thing we haven't tried.  We haven't appealed to the Toopers themselves.  (Face it:  We've never appealed to them, but we're out of options here.)  We've been ignoring them lately, but there are signs that at least a few of them feel at least a little guilt about taking it all and giving only crumbs back.

A group of them, Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, even sent a letter to the president:
Dear Mr. President, we are writing to urge you to stand firm against those who would put politics ahead of their country.
For the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens, we ask that you allow tax cuts on incomes over $1,000,000 to expire at the end of this year as scheduled.
We make this request as loyal citizens who now or in the past earned an income of $1,000,000 per year or more.
We have done very well over the last several years. Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share. We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers. The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.
Letting tax cuts for incomes over $1,000,000 expire, is an important step in that direction.

I admit I don't recognize many of the names on that petition,  but there are some high-profile gazillionaires who have made the same obvious argument:  Gazillionaires should pay taxes, and lots of them, because--boy howdy, they've sure made the profits.   (Some of them even audaciously say their Big Bucks should stay right here in the U.S.A instead of going abroad, but that's another story for another day.  First things first.)

A week before Obama's capitulation to the rich,  Warren Buffett told Christiane Amanpour,  “If anything, taxes for the lower and middle class and maybe even the upper middle class should even probably be cut further.  But I think that people at the high end -- people like myself -- should be paying a lot more in taxes. We have it better than we’ve ever had it. The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you,  but that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on.”

Well, yeah, Warren, plenty of us did catch on.  We're here, waiting for a real leader, and getting pretty antsy about it.  You may not be it (in fact, I'm pretty sure you're not), but if we don't find someone pretty soon who can twist arms and make those Toopers holler "Tax me! Tax me!  Make me be good!" there will be no happy ending for any of us.