Sunday, May 4, 2008

Killing the Messenger

Nothing I’ve written lately has provoked such opposition as my attempt to defend Jeremiah Wright. A couple of friends have suggested that I’ve gone soft in the head. The force with which they have expressed themselves has made me look more carefully at the issue, rather than move on, as I suspect most people are beginning to do.

For Obama’s sake, I hope this is so. But before leaving the topic, which I will do unless Wright and the media find new legs here, let me try once more to express my view that the national dialogue may actually be a blessing in disguise. That was Willie Brown’s view expressed this week on NOW, the David Brancaccio program that follows Moyers’ on Friday nights: more people than ever are getting involved. I think he has a point. We have months to go before the convention and the election, and Obama is a fast-learner. And if he isn’t the long distance runner Hillary is, well, maybe he shouldn’t have the job.

One friend insists I have got it wrong in suggesting it’s about trying to censor Wright. It’s not what he is saying, she says, but the way he says it. She has not explained how you can censor the style without censoring the message.

She’s right, of course, that he comes across as a bloviator. In reading the blogs, I see that many people find him to be arrogant, and several have mentioned his put down of Obama as a politician. I went back over the Moyers interview and the National Press Club talk and listened to the way in which Wright spoke of Obama. Some hear a sneer in his voice. I honestly don’t.

But what if there is? Isn’t his message that politicians have left the black community in the lurch? And, even if mainstream America is now considerably more comfortably mixed race than most of us would have believed possible twenty years ago, thousands of blacks still live in poverty in inner cities and, as the rich get richer, are part of the poor getting poorer. Should these people not have a voice? Can we really dictate that those who disagree with us must disagree on our terms?

To put Wright’s “style” in context, I think there are three issues at play here:

1. Wright’s right to speak his mind.
2. The prioritizing of Obama’s winning the election over Wright’s right to speak his mind.
3. The question of whether bombast or self-centeredness in a messenger affects the message.

Nobody should have to defend #1. If that right stops being absolute in this country, that’s the end. #2 sounds so very reasonable, but making winning everything, even at the cost of free speech, means you don’t really mean Wright has the right to speak his mind.

As for #3, if we can’t separate a man or a woman from their message, and insist on throwing the baby out with the bathwater, how can we ask others to avoid that folly?

There is perhaps a fourth issue, the fact that truth has gone by the wayside and the media now make the news, tell us what to focus on and how to interpret things. Given this dumbing down, some of my friends have suggested, we are naïve to go on talking about “free speech.” It’s a myth. And Americans are too stupid anymore to enjoy it if they actually did have it. The prospect of a Republican victory at this stage is so daunting, it's time to regain the White House by any means necessary.

Sorry. I despair about American folly as much as anyone, but that argument goes absolutely nowhere I want to go. Jeremiah Wright has a right to say whatever he wants and if we don’t like it we ought to exercise the right to come back with our own view on how to run the railroad.

Wright’s most contentious statement, as I see it, is his suggestion that the U.S. government turned HIV on black people. That’s outrageous. Stupid. Wrong.

I think. But you know what comes to mind as soon as I give it second thought? When AIDS first hit the gay community when Reagan was president, it took him four years to mention the word in public. Gay people believed this silence to be deliberate, – you’ll still see plenty of silence = death signs at gay political rallies – and happening because, after all, who gave a shit about gay people.

Even today I think that was not entirely paranoia. The government wasn’t giving gay people AIDS, but it wasn’t performing government’s primary task of protecting its citizens, either. Once America threw its money and its brains into the problem, solutions began to be found, and today there are thousands of men and women living with AIDS who only a few years ago would not have been. In fact, the speed with which solutions were found makes all the more ironic and tragic the deaths of those who made the mistake of getting AIDS early on. If only they had been on Reagan time.

Is Jeremiah Wright all that different in using rhetorical excess in suggesting the same kind of irresponsibility might be at work in government? We once conducted medical experiments on black men, withholding treatment and letting them die for the sake of science, without their knowledge and consent. If you don’t know about Tuskegee, you should.

Gay or black resentment or paranoia should not serve as excuses for living in the past. Ultimately gays like me and blacks like Wright should remember but not be constrained by history. I give these examples not to defend Wright’s claims, but to contextualize his anger.

There’s more. If Wright didn’t have enough problems for speaking out too loudly, he’s also being lumped together with right-wing evangelists.

The reason is to point out the double standard. Billy Graham can say – in the Oval Office, of all places, with Nixon – that Jews are undermining America, Pat Robertson can call for the assassination of foreign leaders, Falwell can blame hurricanes on gay people, Hagee can rant about Catholics being the “Whore of Revelation 17,” and McCain and other Republicans not only get less gas for smooching up to these guys, they actually get mileage out of their association with them.

Lost in the comparison is a voice crying out against a murderous and self-destructive foreign policy, abandonment of the poor in our inner cities and other problems of poverty from which blacks suffer way out of proportion to their numbers.

Wright is playing with fire here. Obama could lose the nomination and Wright could be saddled with the blame, justified or not, for ruining the chances of getting a candidate who might bring government more in line with his demands than any who have come before. If I were Wright, I’d worry about that and maybe find another way to broadcast my discontent. But I would also know that if I were really the only reason the country could find for Obama’s loss, it would mean the country has far greater problems than my big mouth.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Austria Felix

When I was a kid, I used to dance with my grandmother. She’d come grab me and haul me on the dance floor at the Germania Society and we’d do the old one-two-three. You know, the blue Da-nube waltz, rest, by Strauss, rest, by Strauss, rest (beat on the bold-face syllables).

From my grandmother I got a romantic view of Vienna, where people wore ball gowns every night and there were princes and princesses and horses with feathers high-stepping down the cobble-stoned streets, and all was music and gaiety.

That image lingered into my twentieth year, when I was studying at the University of Munich and decided one day to hitch-hike to Vienna. Fast trains today do it in four hours. It took me much longer because getting a ride was terribly hard. Long long waits between rides.

At one point, a German on his way to Lenz picked me up and I told him how much harder it seemed to be to get a ride in Austria than in Germany, where I hitchhiked all the time. “That’s the Austrians, for you," he said. "Totally self-centered. Think only of themselves and pay no attention to anybody else.” He stopped several drivers with Vienna license plates and asked them if they would take me the rest of the way. No luck. I was convinced. Austrians are no damned good.

In Connecticut where I grew up people talked like that about the drivers across the border in Massachusetts. People in New York had other faults.

But while I hated Austria, I also loved Austria then (the stay in Vienna was magical) and I loved it each time I went back over the years. Then it was the “God greet you, Madame, I kiss your hand” from the shopkeepers to their lady customers. Today it’s the memory of Christmas in the mountains and the snow and tile stoves and carved wooden furniture with hearts for holes, and the way they roll their r’s and say Jenner for January and dozens of little details that still bring back the image I got from my grandmother.

Who had never been there.

When I got older, more stuff piled on to the image of “those Austrians” with their smug self-centeredness. Kurt Waldheim and the readiness Austrians seem to have for burying their Nazi past. The Anschluss, where 99.7% of the population said “take me, take me” and then insisted after the war they were as much victims of the war as anybody.

“I don’t like Austrians much,” I heard myself say once, for no particular reason. Followed by, “Where the hell did that come from?” I realized I had made a nice little package of images, the kind that is possible when your knowledge base is scant.

What had happened to that other Austria? Archduke Ferdinand and the Hapsburgs - “bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube” (“others wage war, but you, happy Austria, marry”), the Salzburg Mozart festival, Haydn, Schubert, all those Strausses, Freud, Wittgenstein, Martin Buber? Arnold Schwarzenegger!?

Over the years I lived in Japan I became intimately familiar with the way non-Japanese, myself included, put the country and its culture and customs under a microscope. Everybody and his cousin Pico wanted to write a book about it, and entirely too many did. We used to say if you’re going to write a book about Japan, you’d better do it in the first two years. After that your opinions get too clouded by layered information that puts a lie to whatever conclusions you want to draw.

Not that foreigners are the only culprits in this kind of bumper sticker social analysis. Each time some gruesome kiddie porn scandal or suicide pact or other example of the limitless possibilities of human folly comes to the surface, the media have a frenzy of navel-gazing. “What is it in the Japanese psyche that makes these things possible?”

Now I’m watching this pseudo-analysis over the macabre event in Amstetten where this man locked his daughter in a dungeon for twenty-four years and produced seven children off her. While all while mama lived upstairs and knew nothing.

And we’re off and running. Is this an “Austrian” phenomenon? A “Lower Austrian” phenomenon? A “town of Amstetten” phenomenon?

Why not a germanophone phenomenon? How about a catholic phenomenon? Austria is a catholic country and fiercely paternalistic historically. Which explains the appeal of Nazism and the willingness not to question papa’s orders not to go into the basement poking around. Why not a circumstantial problem? Austria, because of the cold, builds sturdy houses with concrete basements easily made into dungeons. You won’t find a Tahitian creep pulling something like this in Tahiti. They don’t have the houses for it.

What a silly game it turns into. And even serious people play it. Yesterday, it was the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Today it’s The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune going on with “what is it about Austria???”

Japan is kiddie porn. It’s also an exquisite sensibility that enables it to declare living artists as official national treasures. Austria is unrepentent Nazis. It’s also Mozart.

This is merely the media with their poisoned pens turned momentarily on felix Austria. Wait a day or two and they’ll be back reducing Obama to Jeremiah Wright and Hillary to her gaffe over Bosnia. And the lively example of America’s democracy in action to a bitter feud between self-destructive democrats. Not that they won’t be right about the way people interpret what’s going on. Of course they’ll be right. They lead the flock into temptation and then write stories about the fall.

It’s a media game. A reason for not reading the papers.

But then where are we?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Please submit…

The other day, a letter came in the mail to me from the Japanese Social Security Office. Those wonderful folk were kind enough to write me in English. I want to thank them for that. Not only do they make it easier on me, they bring back a flood of nostalgia for days gone by, when language such as this was part of my every day:

• Please use capital alphabets…

• Please make certain of filling the form and preparing all the necessary documents.

• For a certificate to submit together with the Report on the Pensioner’s Current Status (postcard), please submit one with a certification date after a month before your birth month.

The first paragraph reads:

For the “Report on the Pensioner’s Current Status for the National Pension/Employees’ Pension Insurance”, you have already submitted a notification verifying that you currently live abroad. Therefore, please fill in your name and address (written by yourself) on the enclosed Report on the Pensioner’s Current Status (postcard), apply to the Japanese Embassy (Consulate General) of your country where you submitted your resident notification for a “residence certificate”, and submit the certificate after its delivery by the end of your birth month, together with the enclosed Report on the Pensioner’s Current Status (postcard).

This is the first paragraph. It goes on for four pages, but since that has to do with things like what I should do if I have changed my address or bank account or died, I’ll stop with this.

I have been collecting Japanese Social Security (Koseinenkin) for two years now, and I assume this is a routine bureaucratic way of asking me if I am still alive (I am), if nothing about me has changed (nothing has), and so I proceeded to fill out the postcard and planned to go to the Japanese Consulate for a signature on the residence certificate.

Because last time I did that, they turned me down cold, I decided to phone and check first. Sure enough, what I got from the clearly annoyed consular official was, “We don’t provide that form for non-Japanese.”

The dialogue went like this from there:

“But I already have the form. I just need your hanko (official seal).”
“You only need that if you are Japanese.”
“No, I am collecting koseinenkin, and that means the requirements for me are the same as for any Japanese.”
“You don’t need to come here. You can go to any notary public.”

Ah! Now that makes sense. After all, if I lived in Scobey, Montana, the nearest Japanese consulate would be in Denver, 842 miles to the South. Or I could drive to Seattle, 1012 miles to the West. Or Chicago, 1172 miles to the Southeast.

So I went to Aardvark Rent-a-Relic, where I last rented an old vehicle in 1997, and whose proprietor is a Notary Public. He remembered me. I believe in those days it was called “Rent a Wreck.”

I now have a piece of paper for which I paid good money, attesting to the fact that I live where I live, and now am marvelling over this, the latest in curious bureaucraticisms. Nothing, I understand, changes based on where I live. Japanese social security is paid into a bank account, and my eligibility is not contingent on where I live. They do not pay me more if I live in Dubai, less if I live in Ouagadougou.

Taku is concerned that I did not insist the Japanese Consulate stamp my form instead of having a notary do it. It says, after all, “Note 1: If the report on the current status is not correctly submitted by the deadline (the end of your birth month), please note that payment of the pension is suspended.” He is not interested in the Scobey, Montana argument, in other words. He’s interested in what it says in black and white. Which means he’s also really disturbed trying to process the information that I should “submit one with a certification date after a month before (my) birth month.”

His experience with Japanese and other bureaucracies has taught him the wisdom of doing what it says in black and white, damn the torpedoes. I’m worried this may be like the Star Trek episode where Dr. Spock figured out how to disable a killer rogue computer by asking it to solve for π.

Will let you know if my pension payments come to a screeching halt.