I’m back from a short assignment in Sierra Leone, furnished with a new computer and the renewed ability to get photos off both my camera and my phone and then edit them more or less as I like. So I’ll be trying to update my readers – be you known friends & family, or some of my many much-appreciated but unknown viewers from around the world – with all the various things I’ve been seeing and doing in recent months. A thing I’ve learned from my many MSF friends and colleagues is that, even for those who could afford the airplane flights to the US, the idea of visiting the US is very unappealing to many in the world. Either the active adventure travelers assume it’s a destination for one’s older age when the energy to hike and live rough is reduced…or many of my friends and colleagues are understandably concerned about the warmth and humanity of their reception in a country whose “elected” government has gone so bitter, angry, and unwelcoming. I find that a pity since there’s so much worth seeing in the US and also so many people of all backgrounds and perspectives, many or even most of them really quite lovely as individuals, even in states currently driven by the most angry and unwelcoming people. All but one of these photos were taken on the island of Manhattan, the heart of New York City, between April and June. The photo just below, in which my brother Steve & I join our old family friend Jill to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday, was taken on the far side of the George Washington Bridge (see the slide show below), in New Jersey. Since the GWB is Mom’s favorite bridge in the world, the gallery is a small tribute to her also. Though I love my work and how it exposes me to the realities of a world beyond our shores here in North America…well, it’s always nice when I get back to my family, even if being here means living in denial about the fact that our classy, smart & cosmopolitan President Obama seems to have left the white house… As usual, captions will try to tell you what each photo is, and I’ll write nothing more but let you appreciate NYC and its architecture, skyline and hidden corners.
I’m still pretty deeply embedded in this north American continent, still quite deeply enmeshed in this project to set Mom up for a safer, gentler ongoing retirement by, well, nearly tearing down and rebuilding her house. This raises questions both deep and shallow. The most-common question asked by new acquaintances (read: usually guys I wish I could be dating) is ‘What do you do.’ For some time now I’ve taken disproportionate pride and joy in being able to say I’m a humanitarian worker – it usually launches interesting conversations, and it pretty well always garners me some approving feelings and comments from my conversation partner. However, for a guy of my years and experience to be…sort of an unemployed homeless person, formerly a humanitarian worker but now engaged in the humanitarian ‘Mom Project,’ – well, that just doesn’t come across quite so glamorous. There are deeper pleasures and rewards of family closeness and connection to my Mom, though; one came this past week, as my brothers and I gathered to help move Mom into her new temporary residence, and a few days later when I saw this house in which she (and we) had been accumulating detritus and stuff since 1975 emptied completely. It awaits now only building approval for the demolition and excavation to begin.
And while, on the surface, none of this is as challenging or rewarding as – say – running a surgical and emergency hospital in the Niger Delta, it keeps me busy. In addition, whether I like it or not, it forces me to sit down with questions like identity, life goals, and what it’s all about. I’m one of those Americans who’s felt rather estranged from my country, which took a turn from bad to much worse when we allowed the most destructive president of all time to remain in office after the 2004 elections. It’s much easier, when traveling internationally, to act Canadian than to have to explain that we truly have NO IDEA how that managed to happen. And since that was true – I really have had no idea why so many Americans looked at this lying, incompetent man and said ‘yeah, four more years in the White House sounds like a great idea for him.’ So it’s been much easier to just act like I’m not really part of it.
Being back has made me recognize, again, the complicated reality that is America, that is being American. And that complicated multi-faceted contradictory reality is more than ever present in our current circumstances. We’ve passed a presidential election that’s brought hope to folks around the world for a more constructive, engaged and positive American influence in the world – not to mention more realistic and honorable policies at home. At the same time, the US has spurred another global economic downturn that’s clearly one of the worst in 100 years, and whose bottom we’ve probably not yet found. Four and six years ago, I was totally bearish on America when others were betting our stock ever higher and acting like the high-flying leveraged days of irresponsibility could last forever. Now I find myself unusually bullish and confident, at a time when many seem quite lost and fearful.
The most worrisome aspect to me of our current situation is the deliberate know-nothing approach that many Americans take to our social and political realities. And I don’t say that lightly. A democratic nation whose citizens choose, quite deliberately, to show no interest in the complex and challenging realities of the world they live in simply cannot succeed over the long term. Those who’ve fallen deeply in love with Sarah Palin reflect a deeply-rooted, uniquely American idea that complicated answers are bad, and sound bites are good; that intellect is the enemy, irrational simplicity our friend. I’ve wondered constantly how mothers and fathers in middle America, who I’m certain can barely manage to find solutions to their own family’s belt-tightening crisis, can possibly think that simple sound-bite answers will be found for the largest economy and most complicated government structure the world has ever know. And YES, our government DOES need to be the most complicated the world has ever known, since it manages the largest military, biggest economy, and third largest population the world has ever known. How could there possibly be simple answers for such an entity?
But this is the country where you can’t run for president without mouthing the mandatory ‘America is the greatest nation on earth’ formula. Do those mouthing or hearing the words have concrete ideas (as in, why we’re necessarily greater than Bhutan, Ethiopia or Italy?) in mind when they say it or hear it? I AM proud to be American; I DO think there’s much to be proud of in what we’ve done over the years. Sadly, there’s very much to be terribly ashamed of more recently, and those who re-elected Bush and brought more death and torture to remote corners of the globe, funded by their tax dollars, need to acknowledge their responsibility for what was done by the government they voted for, with their tax dollars. And I’d love to hear their list of concrete things that make them so proud, that make this the ‘greatest nation.’ I have my own list – though I reject utterly the notion that any nation is, or should expect to be, the ‘greatest nation.’ All citizens in all nations are doing what they can to put food on the tables of their families, and most governments, to a greater or lesser extent, are trying to find ways of meeting at least the most basic needs of their citizens.
Still and all, considering the fear and worry on the minds of many Americans, it’s a good time to remember things we can be reasonably proud of. This country, in creative dialogue with Franceth century, created a meaningful new model of democracy that helped fire political and social imaginations throughout the world. This country has been the leading nation composed of immigrants from all cultures, languages and ethnicities; and that diversity has usually given us the kind of health and creative vitality that most mutts have. At times we could learn well from our great northern neighbor, Canada, how better to create a cultural quilt that honors our differences rather than trying to melt them in a pot and fit everyone into the same mold; but still, we’ve done pretty well at taking the energies and experiences of people from all over the world and using them grow an endlessly creative and energetic nation. And we’ll need all that energy and creativity to find our way out of the mess Bush & Co have sunk us so deeply into. I could go on, but the point is made –like all nations and groups, we’ve made contributions both good and bad to the world as a whole, but consistent with our size and place in history, we’ve had a larger impact that most other nations in the past couple hundred years. And we can really be proud of a lot. But it’s been too long since our government did much that we can really be proud of: I’d say the last truly visionary thing we did was use the Marshall plan to invest in a devastated Europe (including Germany) and Japan at the end of World War II. We’ve been coasting on the good will that created ever since – and that well done run dry. We need to get out there and create some meaningful good will, by dropping help rather than bombs on people in developing nations around the world. In fairness to Shrub, he’s left at least one meaningful, positive legacy in the plus column – his serious commitment to AIDS help for nations in Africa. Would that he’d done more of that, and less of the bombs and torture.
It’s clear the hope for renewal and meaningful leadership is shared eagerly all over the world, and this shows up in my own inbox with emails from friends all over saying things from ‘good on you, america,’ or ‘yippi yi ya for obama’ to ‘thank you all you american friends out there…you have made it for the whole of us!!!’ and ‘tears of joy and relief are in my eyes.’ I gave many hours to campaign phone-banks for Obama during October and November. I was born and grew up in Ohio, which was to 2004 what Florida was to 2000. I’m so happy to see the voters finally reject the hate, fear and consumption based approach to life we’ve followed for too long. (Don’t forget that W’s recommendation to citizens after 9/11 was that we should go shopping.) I was personally called anti-American and anti-troops by several people I thought of as friends when I opposed our imperial unilateralist war-mongering response to what, in 2001, could have been a very teachable moment for ourselves and the world. (How different would we and the world now be if we’d taken all those dollars we’ve now wasted in Iraq, and used it on a Marshall-like plan to provide healthcare, education and opportunity in the world’s most deprived places?)
One thing I’ve become increasingly clear about is the need to speak out about my own beliefs and faith. Here in the US, religion is too often used as such a bludgeon to separate and judge – making folks like me very uncomfortable about speaking out for our own beliefs and values, which differ so starkly from those judgmental, narrow-minded religions that bludgeon, but that are no less deeply based in a deep spiritual commitment to right and ethical living in this world. I’ve become convinced that traditional, hidebound religions are a terrible impediment to progress in the US, and are limiting our vision and potential far too much. We are, after all, a nation formed by religious rebels of many stripes – so it’s unsurprising that religion and ethics play a huge role in our public life. Before church recently, I sat in the one of the adult education sessions I’ve so enjoyed; this was about Jewish theologian Abraham Hershel. In one passage, he recounted being told, as a 7-year-old, about the biblical story of Abraham taking Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed, as he’d heard his god demand he do. Naturally the 7-year-old was pretty horrified by the notion of a father killing his son based on the say-so of some voice in the air, and wondered what would have happened if the angel hadn’t told Abraham to stop before his knife struck Isaac’s neck. The rabbi’s answer? Angels are never late – humans, maybe, Angels never.
And that, my friends, is as good an illustration as any of why organized, judgmental religions have far outlived their usefulness to humanity. What sane ethical being would stick a knife in a son’s neck, for any reason, let alone because a voice spoke in thin air? And what sane person would put stock in a holy book that calls this a test of faith? Who needs a god that tests faith by insisting on human sacrifice? Didn’t Christians kill ‘pagans’ for thinking just that when they arrived in far-flung lands throughout the 19th century? What responsible human being would cede agency and responsibility for their own actions and ethics to an unknown angel, or an unknown god, whose existence must be taken on faith? If you believe in that god, don’t you suppose he/she/it gave you that head on your shoulders to be USED rather than turned off?
Something that discomfits me about the unitarian church I’ve been attending here in NYC is that the G word comes up rather often in services. I’m tired of whether we do or don’t believe in G – and I think actions matter more than spoken beliefs. It’s totally clear what sane, intelligent and ethical human beings should be doing in this world — taking care of one another and the planet, reducing conflict, bringing more and more deprived and impoverished people from developing nations and deprived parts of our own nations into our communities of opportunity, restoring the earth and our human world to a more sane balance and distribution of opportunity. To those in Kansas or Alabama who want to parrot that old Puritan saw about predestination, and basically say that their god has blessed them by allowing them to be born in this rich land of milk and honey, while those poor kids in [name of developing nation here] are just shit out of luck in this life…well, I say yours is not a religious practice worthy of the name. Because if religion serves any purpose in human life, surely it is to bind humanity together and increase the safety and security of us all, not just of one people or one community, but of our ever-more-connected global village. So learn a bit more about the world, get out of the Wal Mart and off your butt and do something to help the world become a better place – and start by reducing your own consumption, and using the saved money to donate to reliable charities that give food and medicine to needy people – and not bibles, since those don’t cure tuberculosis or hunger. While you’re at it, you might get around to admitting that hormones are hormones, and abstinence-only ain’t never gonna work…but I won’t ask too much.
In Clint Eastwood’s new movie Changeling, the main character says ‘I didn’t start this fight, but I’m going to finish it.’ I’m feeling much that way now. For many years now, I and other liberal and progressive Americans have felt judged and rejected by what the media like to call ‘values voters.’ I’m tired of that – I am what I am, my values tell me to take care of my friends, family, community and world, and yes I’m proud to be far to the left and far more knowledgeable about what goes on in the world than most other Americans. Deal with it. We all have the right and responsibility both to live the lives that feel right to us – and to accept, without complaint, the consequences of those lives. For many Americans, right now, that means finding ways to tighten belts and develop some goals and values in life that involve something more than non-stop consumption, trips to the mall, and heaping more junk into their houses that will end up in the trash. There’s a lot to see and do in the world that doesn’t increase you carbon footprint. Try it – learn a little, explore a little; you might find that you like living a bit smaller in a larger world.