Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
This beheading takes a little scene-setting.
I was sitting outside a little while ago, enjoying this deliciously mild April afternoon with a an obscene amount of whiskey, an even more obscenely endowed cigar and a fat French novel on the endless depradations of journalism when, between the yonder sounds of an ice cream truck’s Joplin-inspired call to sprinkly cones and the nearer jabbering of degenerate mockingbirds I heard Cheryl’s voice from the upstairs bedroom window throw me a siren’s greeting. From where I was sitting I couldn’t see her, so I walked a few steps into the yard to better fill her in on my vices and talk strategy about the next few hours: we have plans a few hours from now to perhaps drop in on the Ribfest in Town Center, where we both have intentions of Christening Palm Coast’s version of boozing us citizens for the greater benefit of the city then hop over to the galleries to check out Hollingsworth’s novel art and the Art League’s spring show.
Then it happened: the death rattle. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it if we live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It’s that rapid-fire rattle of the air-conditioner’s compressor blades committing hari-kari with the sound of an invisible AK-47. It immediately sends chills down your spine at the coming hassles—the heat rising in the house, the night’s mottled skin, the hunt for an air-conditioning repairman who doesn’t relish the weekend call as an excuse to gouge, the wait, the goddamn bill. Cheryl disappeared from the widow. Spousal flirt over.
I walked over to the unit. We have two of them. It’s a two-level house. At least one of them was still humming, suggesting that all was not lost. I got nearer. Both of them were still humming. Both blades still spinning happily, unalarmed. No smoke. No strange smells, no more strange sounds. A few palm fronds surround the units. At first I thought one of them was caught in the blades and got its last rites. But they don’t hover that closely. That wasn’t it. I got nearer.
The arthritically crumpled hind leg of a miniature horror from the Jurassic was sticking out of the grille—a lizard, a frog, an iguana or who knows what. My ignorance, too, was showing its legs. The victim’s last sight and testament was attached to a body sinking inside the compressor’s sarcophagus, and disappearing in a frozen curve down the round side of the thing like a memory from a medieval dungeon. I know next to nothing about Floridian reptiles, so my next thought was itself testament not to the life just lost so much as to my ignorance, which assumed it was a lizard that, from the looks of it, had been cleanly decapitated, the death rattle having been nothing more (or nothing less, if you’re a relative of the poor creature) than the bony head of the bonehead making a tocsin of its murderer. From where I stood it looked like a clean beheading. No blood, not even time for the lizard to have a last slither. It was congealed in its last crawl on earth, mostly inside the compressor, that small bit of itself sticking out of the grille like a grave marker.
I can’t describe my relief and joy. There would be no air-conditioning emergency today. Only a requiem.
I announced the good-and-bad news to Cheryl, who had disappeared from the window faster than it takes to dial the local Palm Coast Heating & Air rep (they’ve been advertisers with us since the Cambrian era, might as well give them a plug). But it wasn’t over. There was still the matter of playing undertaker.
I grabbed a few dozen yards of paper towels in preparation for the retrieval operation. Then I remembered what any homicide investigator worth his FHP would do: I asked my son to bring me the camera. I took a few shots, for the record, for the memory, for the potential litigation. You never know with lizards, who have an entire profession named after them. Cheryl wanted to have a look, and say a few words. The Bible, however, stayed upstairs. This would be a secular sanitation job. Then I set to work.
And lo and behold, there is a god. Or at least a frog angel.
For it wasn’t a lizard at all. (See above, under ignorance). As I grabbed the deceased from its leg and pulled it back into the world of the unbladed, the body, which may have been shuddering more than I was, was no lizard but, as Cheryl was quicker to notice, a frog. And it was not decapitated. It was all there. Head, torso, arthritic limbs, eyes as wide open as a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie, though its snout bore a mark as clearly red as if it had just been consecrated with a bindi. Good thing the Bible was left upstairs: we were in Hindu-chakra territory.
The frog had merely had the experience of going mano-a-mano with Mike Tyson reincarnated as a set of blades. The sound we’d heard was nothing Howard Cosell hadn’t described in a thousand metaphors from Manilla to Kinshasa, and now, from beyond the grave, from Palm Coast. The sun was shining on this frog-prince, and shaming my earlier assumptions of a beheading, though they’re not without an absolving explanation my shrink and PTSD medicine would understand: this is April 13 after all, a date that lives in every Lebanese-born descendant of that infamous memory. It was 38 years ago today (on a radiant Sunday) that the Lebanese Civil War began its 15-year folly of sectarian bloodletting, much of it by way of memory-rattling and un-neighborly beheadings. Every year on this date I either choose to neutralize the memory by writing about it or, as I had chosen to do today, inducing myself into a mildly oblivious coma with enough drink and smoke to make an Islamist’s beard turn white. It had been working. Until the death rattle. Oh well.
I walked the stunned frog across the road, the frog’s eyes and mine locked in an embrace half grateful half resentful, and gently put the creature down by the woods of the empty lot. It would either be its almost-final resting place on the way to a fellow-creature’s feast, or its convalescent swale. Assuming, of course, that a Flagler County sheriff’s deputy with an itchy finger and a Glock didn’t drive by.
Last Updated: 9:39 p.m.
I’m inviting you to join me at an execution this evening, Florida’s fourth this year. Larry Eugene Mann, 59, is scheduled to be killed at 6 p.m. by lethal injection in the state’s death chamber at Starke prison, 75 miles northwest of Palm Coast. I’ve never been to an execution. And by going to one, I don’t mean that I’ll be a witness to it. I would refuse even if offered the dishonor, as reporters frequently are. I’ll be witnessing the vigils, the protests and the counter-protests outside the prison grounds, which take place every time there is an execution. It’s become part of the ritual of executions across the country, though neither executions nor protests (and supportive demonstrations, because those happen, too) get more than a few paragraphs’ coverage here and there, and virtually no more than a passing mention on the evening news, ahead of the weather.
After covering a recent workshop on the death penalty in Florida, I decided to join Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes, the Catholic church in Daytona Beach, and the bus-load of people he has taken to every single execution at Starke for years, to stand vigil. The bus made a stop at the Winn-Dixie shopping center near Woody’s Barbecue on State Road 100 at 3 p.m. this afternoon. I boarded it, along with Jackie Morelewicz, who organized the March workshop, and who usually stands vigil, in protest of executions, outside the Flagler County Courthouse, whenever needles ready to end a life in Starke. We’re not likely to be back in town until 9 or 10 p.m. I have no idea how the afternoon and evening will go. I will do my best to chronicle it here as it unfolds. the account will be written in reverse order: the fresher entries will appear at the top.
We were told to bring food or a snack and some drinks, because of the length of the trip. I brought a ham-and-cheese sandwich (American cheese, incidentally: the Swiss don’t execute) and a container of water. I mention these details because to me they’re no less absurd than talk of the walking dead man’s last meal: we’re going to an execution, but we’ll still get hungry and thirsty, which seems to me natural and obscene at the same time, as matter-of-factly obscene, actually, as the entirety of the rituals surrounding an execution, inside and outside the prison walls.
9:39 p.m. Time to call it a night. We’re approaching Palm Coast on I-95. We’ll be dropped off at the Winn-Dixie shopping center. We’ll reclaim our cars, drive home, have a beer, watch what degenerate TV may be worth watching with spouse and son–skipping the 11 o’clock news, as always–and eventually go to sleep like any other night. In some ways we might as well have gone to a minor league baseball game. We might as well have gone to the Lake County fair. Or to a beheading. There’s an inevitable blending of absurdities when horror and banality so easily mingle, or maybe collude–what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil in a somewhat different context that happens to apply just as well here: she argued that the Holocaust wasn’t the work of nut jobs, but of men who thought what they were doing was as normal as it was necessary. The very same principle that underlies our own machinery of death, and why Father Egitto so easily–and with so much conviction–calls it “evil.” Some people like to think they touch the face of god once in a while. We grazed the face of evil today, from quite a distance, but distances in that context are irrelevant.9:14 p.m.: On the way to Starke I had a conversation with Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach and the sort of priest who (are you listening Colleen Conklin?) makes me think twice about having revoked my one-time citizenship-in-fanatical-standing in the Catholic church. He reminds me of our own Beth Gardner (the pastor at Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church) for being more grounded in the here and now than seduced by the sort of gauzy Christian platitudes that are indistinguishable from Hallmark cards, but with saccarine halos all over them. No holier-than-thou bullshit from this Brooklyn-born, Gator-bred priest. (“I knew I wasn’t meant to be a monk,” he said at one point, explaining his spiritual evolution before the self-evident punch-line: “I’m from Brooklyn.”)
The barbarism of state-sponsored executions is his here and now. He’s been going to those vigils for seven years. It hasn’t always been in a bus as big as the one we’re riding now (at a rental cost of about $800 to a parish that is nowhere near rich: “We’re living paycheck to paycheck,” Egitto says.) But the groups have been sizable. That’s a lot of executions. Today’s was the 15th since the beginning of 2006.
“We do this because the state kills in our name,” Egitto says. “If we don’t do this then we’re complicit with evil. So we do this because we want to say to the governor, to the state, that you’re not killing in my name.” As Egitto saw it, he had two choices: he could leave Florida, or he could stay and protest. He stayed. He doesn’t call it capital punishment. He doesn’t even call it killing. “I consider it murder,” he says. And murder worse than most murders committed by the sort of people who end up on death row–more premeditated, more sober, less excusable by mental imbalance or psychosis or drugs or alcohol or misjudgment or youth or whatever else death row defendants throw at the justice system when they’re trying to get out of their sentence. When the state kills–when it murders–it is doing so with ultimate premeditation. “We are knowingly, premeditatively, planningly, willingly killing somebody,” Egitto says. And, he adds, we’re “teaching the culture that it’s all right to kill.”
A little after 9 p.m., Egitto took to the bus’ microphone and spoke of the afternoon and evening, and asked various members of the group to describe how they felt. One man spoke of anxiety ion the approach of 6 p.m., then relief after the ringing of the bell. A woman called Ellen said: “It was her first time, she didn’t know what to expect, she liked the prayer service and the ringing of the bell, and described the whole experience as “very sobering and touching, particularly the attorney.” She was referring to the inmate’s attorney, who came out to speak with the group after the execution. (See below.)
“On behalf of the people from Flagler County we want to thank you,” Jim Morelewicz said, representing the congregation from Flagler Beach. “It has been a very warm and gracious group. We are very thankful.”
I also spoke with Sean O’Dell, principal at Lourdes Academy. He’s been making the trips to Starke for seven years as well, at times with students. He described his first time, different from all other times since, because you “can’t really believe you’re really there as someone is being killed across the way.” This time, he said, he was surprised by the number of “proponents” of the death penalty, though they did not do what they had once done at a previous execution, when O’Dell had brought several students with him: the proponents cheered the moment the protesters rang the bell to signal the moment of death.
8:37 p.m.: As we ride the bus back to Flagler in the dark, we pass by a burst of lights in the myriads scintillating against the black sky like a flying-carpet casino. Someone in the bus yells out, “Hey, it’s the Lake County Fair!” There’s a faint cheer, maybe more sardonic than wistful. If not, it ought to be sardonic. None of us is quite in a fair mood. The bus–one of those gigantic things you see shuttling people to airports or around the Eiffel Tower–never slowed.8 p.m. Larry Eugene Mann was pronounced dead at 7:19 p.m. No explanation about the delay. Elisa Nelson’s family had witnesses to the execution. Mann had a choice of only two: his spiritual adviser and his attorney. He chose his attorney. He was not allowed to have family present as witnesses. Sometimes the family of the person being executed joins the protesters, to be in company of the closest thing to a supportive group they may have. In this case, there was no one, except Marie-Louise Samuels-Parker, who joined the church group shortly after Mann was pronounced dead, and after the passing of the hearse. “It was not botched,” Samuels-Parker said of the execution. And Mann had no final words. The attorney works frequently with men and women on death row (there are four women among the 406 Floridians on death row). She said she tells them of the people–like this very church group–who are working on their behalf to end the death penalty. It was a brief encounter between the attorney and the group, but also a sort of catharsis in reverse, a chance for a few people to hug the attorney and get at least a sense that the senselessness is not unanimous. 7:34 p.m.: The vans have come out, bearing the execution’s witnesses. Not yet clear if the hearse has followed. (It actually did, a white hearse, but it went in an opposite direction, toward the funeral; home.) The sun is setting immediately behind the prison. it’s what you’d call a spectacular sunset, if it weren’t for the guard tower in the way. What’s supposed to follow is a news conference, so called, though that too is part of the ironies of the day, a staged segment of the Department of Corrections’ ritual that works more to legitimize the killing that just took place than to explain it. There would be nothing to explain, at any rate. But the news conference also at times allows members of the murdered victim’s family to speak their hearts, much as they might in a sentencing hearing. This family has been waiting 32 years.
7 p.m.: There’s a white tent set up with a modest dais a couple of football fields’ length from the pro and con gatherings, where the witnesses to the execution are supposed to be taken, along with members of the victim’s (the murdered victim, not the murderer’s) family. But so far, no sign of life anywhere. We only hear the mooing of cows in the distance (there are innumerable cows lounging in packs along the fence that separates their pasture from the state prison’s grounds). Next to the white tent, just two television trucks. Sometimes there are many more, Mark Elliott, who heads Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was telling me moments ago, after remembering the time 32 years ago when the murder took place, not far from his neighborhood: he’s from Tampa. He comes to these executions every time. Has been making the three-hour trip for about 10 years or so.
“To have executions and not have anyone here,” Elliott says, “anyone bear witness, anyone protest, that’s what I would worry about the most.” But he’s not been having to worry about it. The crowds are growing, not diminishing, just as the movement to abolish the death penalty is gaining momentum, if not quite as much in Florida. “It’s our elected leaders who haven’t evolved as much as their constituents. But they will.”
6:05 p.m. After a long silence, the church group began ringing the loud, cylindrical bell, at 6 p.m., signaling the death of the inmate.
Several members of the church group rang the bell, yelling out “Not in my name” and “not in God’s name,” among other words. Then silence. Murmurs. Low chatter. The odd laughter–unrelated to any of this–from a small group of Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who have simply been assigned to these grounds and have no official interest one way or the other in the proceedings.
Then the wait: first for the van that carries out the witnesses the execution. Then for the hearse–or the coach, as they call it here–that brings out the body of the dead man.
I’m not going to say that any of this is surreal, because it’s not. There’s too much traffic–traffic of every kind: passing cars, people, voices, birds, bugs–to lend the scene anything surreal. This is common. It happens every few months here, every few days somewhere in the country. That’s what it’s been reduced to (not that it had ever been elevated into something else): a vague event a few people will pay attention to, a cause for small (very small) protests and counter-protests, for a few hours anyway, and then onto the next execution. The irony is how cheap death can be made to seem, in a system that costs the state $50 million a year.5:45 p.m. It’s a quiet scene: the opponents of capital punishments roped off in their own square of grass, the proponents squared off across the field, with a row of Florida Highway Patrol cruisers lined up between the two camps. The cruisers look superfluous. There are no intentions on either side to engage. The state prison is across the road some 300 yards away, to the west. The opponents held a brief prayer service, sang a few songs. The proponents were gathered in a circle of lawn and beach chairs, speaking with each other, wondering if there’d be any stay of execution. There wasn’t. The centerpiece of the proponents’ display is a long table covered with framed pictures of Elisa Nelson, the 10year-old girl murdered in 1980. And a vase filled with white flowers.
5:24 p.m. We arrive on the prison grounds. There’s a little excitement in the bus when the passengers eye another bus already here. Not of the same thinking: it’s a bus-full of proponents of the death penalty, bringing people from the Tampa Bay Area, where the victim of this latest murderer to be put to death was killed in 1980.
5 p.m.–We arrive in Starke, a town like any other, as unremarkable as its Kangaroo, where we stop for the first time since Palm Coast to give the two dozen people aboard the bus a chance to stretch out, buy a few snacks. I’m nagged by this memory, or odd connection: how the Poles and Germans who lived in the towns neighboring Nazi death camps would go about living their lives, watching the trains come in with their loads of human cargo, go back empty. There’s no serious comparison, except in the particular of one method: it was in Nazi death camps that lethal injection was first developed.
4 p.m.–There is virtually nothing redeeming about Larry Eugene Mann, the 59-year-old scheduled to be killed by the state of Florida, by lethal injection, at 6 this evening. Thirty-two and a half years ago–the morning of Nov. 4, 1980–Mann murdered 10-year-old Elisa Vera Nelson as she was biking to Palm Harbor Middle School, a bit late, with a note from her mother to her fifth-grade teacher to explained she’d been to the dentist that morning. She lived in a Tampa suburb.Mann, a convicted sex offender who’d raped a woman in Pascagoula, Miss., in 1973, intercepted her. He thought of raping her. That had been the reason he’d grabbed her. But he didn’t. He cut her throat. He fractured her skull with a cement-encased steel pipe that was found next to Elisa’s body. After the murder Mann went home and slashed both his wrists. The attempted suicide failed. He told police at his home that he had “done something stupid and needed help.” At the time, police presumed he was talking about the attempt on his life. It wasn’t. Four days after the suicide attempt, Mann asked his wife to get his glasses from his pick-up truck. There, his wife found the blood-soaked note Elisa’s mother had written to her teacher. Mann was arrested on Nov. 10.
He was sentenced to death three times, beginning in March 1981. The first sentence was vacated by the Florida Supreme Court, the second by a federal court. The third, in 1990, stuck. Mann’s attorney, Marie-Louise Samuels-Parker Friday sought a stay of execution from the Florida Supreme Court.
Elisa would have been 42 this year.
Imagine your child’s teacher assigning George Orwell’s 1984. The assignment is by way of an electronic book, so your child can read her copy on one of those iPads spreading through school districts like shades of gray. But there’s a catch. The teacher will know exactly how much time your child will spend with the book, whether the pages are turned, whether there’s any underlining, whether your child is actually engaging with the book. And the teacher will be able to give that study time an “engagement index” score that could be part of any assignment’s overall grade.
This isn’t an imaginary scheme from the future. It’s a technology already available on college textbooks, from a California start-up called CourseSmart, and it’s being used in nine colleges, with professors literally spying on their students’ study habits, and tallying up scores according to those habits. “It’s big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurly, dean of the school of business at Texas A&M, tells the Times in an article on that new form of e-spying today. But does the good intent override the disturbing implications of this latest intrusion in private lives?
On Sunday I wrote about the blurring of lines between home and the workplace, which enables companies to creepily assume that their employees’ speech and behavior even away from work is the employer’s to police. Individual privacy is eroding at East German speeds. Spying through e-books is another example.
Reading is one of the few truly private activities left us, depending entirely on the isolation created between book and reader, and the way the reader chooses to engage with that book: reading a page over five times, skipping five pages, underlining five lines, cursing at five others. It’s all between the reader and the book, an act that shares some of the intimacies of sex (and passion) down to its exhilarations and disappointments (a bad writer having a lot in common with a lousy lover). Reading a textbook may not rate in the same category. But it’s no less intimate. The act of reading a textbook still belongs exclusively to the reader. How you read a textbook is irrelevant. If you’re performing well in class, that’s all that should matter.
For those teachers spying on their students’ study habits, it isn’t: they’re intruding on those manners of study, and making judgments about them whatever the results. One student did very well on a test, but the teacher discovered that the book had barely been cracked. That was a problem. Why? Are teachers now going to start down-grading their students because the work they produce isn’t in line with the expectations of studying in a particular way? There are innumerable ways to read, to study, to meditate on a subject (or not). A teacher’s idea of studying has no place imposing itself on a student’s.
Worse: “Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them.” How could any data-gathering system be justified when the person being spied on is not privy to the data? The motive behind the new system explains plenty. It’s not about improving habits or good intentions. It’s about market share: “CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing,” the Times reports.
Publishers also want to use the information to craft new editions, thus further diluting the editorial integrity of a work at the expense of marketing or popular corruptions. Meanwhile teachers can further dilute their own responsibility to judge their course’s effectiveness on their own by relying on yet more stashes of outside “data,” further reducing the need to do teaching’s heavy lifting. When is the last time your child had to write a paper?
It’s policing by data—a data-driven fetish that substitutes short-cutting technology (and let’s be blunt about it: spying) for critical judgment, while hiding behind presumptions of efficiency. I wouldn’t entirely discount some advantages to the technology. Readers’ habits could better direct a teacher to hone a course’s effectiveness, make it more interesting, less easy. But good teachers can do that now, unaided. Spying on readers’ study habits is deceptive gimmickry that gives the illusion of empowering teachers (or students) while wrecking the creative isolation the reading experience depends on most to be effective.
E-readers are familiar with the spying already. They participate in it. An electronic book tracks the highlighted passages of its readers across the country, across the world, so that my electronic copy of Richard Ford’s Canada, for instance, came already polluted by the collective underlines of who knows how many readers. Not just underlines, but notes, comments, shares, too. Mine would be added to the bunch, if I let it. I don’t. At least Kindle gives you the option of turning off those intrusions, and preventing your own from going into the universe. There are few more distasteful perversions of the reading experience than to be bombarded by the impersonal underlines and reactions of a collective blurb (just as there are few more tasty pleasures in the reading experience than to share a book or a passage with someone). Just don’t butt in uninvited.
But schemes like CourseSmart are all about butting in. “There is also correlation, the students are learning, between perception and success,” the Times goes on, with perverse results: “Hillary Torres, a senior, is a good student with a low engagement index, probably because she is taking notes into a computer file not being tracked. This could be a problem; she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose local chapter is advised by Mr. Guardia [a Texas A&M teacher tracking 70 students]. “If he looks and sees, ‘Hillary is not really reading as much as I thought,’ does that give him a negative image of me?” she wondered. “His opinion really matters. Maybe I need to change my study habits.”
Catholics have a new pope, and it’s 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires–the first-ever South American pope, the first non-European pope (since Columbus, anyway, as Jim Flahrety corrected), and the first-ever pope to name himself Francis (Francis I), after St. Francis, patron saint of the poor. He is the 266th pope, and far from the first-ever to have been born closer to the 19th century than the 21st.
Finally, nevertheless, a pope we can (somewhat) believe in, though he has a very long road ahead to restore much of the church’s respectability in light of the pedophile scandal (Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, astoundingly, was among those casting votes for the new pope despite his scabrous role in protecting child-raping priests), in light of its still-enduring and discordant wealth, in light of its still-enduring and ridiculous discriminations against women, and in light of its lacking embrace of the Americas’ Catholics, north or south. All this to do in what may prove to be another abbreviated reign. The church appears incapable of getting over its fetish for doddering eminences who should be making room for leaders half their age.
This unsmiling pope has an oversize reputation for humility and popularity. He’s the sort of man who took mass transit to go to work (and held audiences with commuters on their way to work). He’s the sort of man who dispensed with the trappings of cardinals (big residences, ostentatious offices). He’s the sort of man who, after all, picks Francis for a name, the Francis of Assisi who felt more comfortable chattering with animals than human beings. The Francis of Assisi who, to the dismay of oil companies everywhere now that he’s breathing pontifical breadth (if not breath), is the patron saint of the environment. A few Greenpeace activist must right now be converting back to Catholicism. (Let’s see how long it’ll take Marco Rubio, patron saint of opportunists, to jump on the Bergoglio bandwagon and milk its Hispanic expediencies).
The announcement was still made in Latin, as it always has been, when it could more interestingly and daringly have been made in Spanish in recognition of the church’s majority language. Maybe it’s asking too much too soon. But nothing short of doing too much and quite soon can reverse the church’s decline (not just its priest shortage, but its credibility shortage). Catholicism is neither hip nor relevant, the John Paul-Benedict versions of Catholicism especially. Those versions were distinctly reactionary and hurtful to masses of people who, looking for guidance from their spiritual leaders, got idiotic lessons instead, most notably in Africa, where the John Paul-Benedict years have as much to account for over the Aids holocaust, which they did nothing to combat, as did Pius XII during the Shoah. And let’s not get into matters of contraception, homosexuality, transparency. The Vatican bank operates as if it was still 1226.
In Latin America meanwhile, the Church knows that its greatest challenge isn’t money or faith. It’s competition. Evangelicals have been piling up converts by the drove, not least because the Vatican has seemed as removed geographically as it’s been politically and spiritually. The Vatican’s inane rejection of liberation theology in the 1980s did it no favors. Rather, the rejection highlighted the desiccated institution it had become, more comfortable accommodating and exercising power, or apologizing for it, than tending to power’s victims.
Latin America has had its share. Argentina had its disproportionate share, and this pope will have to answer for some of his past, given his possibly too silent relationship with the junta of the 1970s that repressed, massacred and disappeared Argentines by the drove. The choice of Francis becomes more and more revealing, if not more potent. On the other hand, every time Brazil will boast about hosting the next World Cup, Argentina will say it has its own pope. (Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, the only time it hosted it, under the murderous gaze of junta members. It’s doubtful that the officiating was more democratic than the latest conclave in Rome.)
As for St. Francis (to whom we owe not only the talking fish, but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the first Christmas manger scene), Valerie Martin wrote a wonderful portrait for the Atlantic in August 2000. The full version is available here.
When buses in Montgomery, Ala., were segregated, owners of the National City Lines could not understand what upset blacks so much. They were allowed to ride the bus, after all. They were provided a service, if not a favor. They could sit from back of the bus to the front, so long as whites, who had the privilege of sitting from front to back, did not crowd them out. Nothing wrong with that, National City Lines operators thought, until Rosa Parks decided to differ, and to refuse to give up the seat she’d taken, when a white person boarded and demanded it. Jackie Robinson had done the same thing in 1944, when he was still a soldier, when blacks were sent to Europe and Japan to fight for freedoms most of them were denied. He was court-martialed. That he was acquitted is beside the point: the offense was in the laws that deemed him guilty of inferiority to start with. And still, whites wondered what the fuss was about: “They’re allowed to ride the bus, aren’t they? What more do they want?” What more do they want: the oppressor’s patronizing motto in full bloom, blind to its own delusion of benevolence.
Israel’s transportation ministry is reviving the line and applying it to Palestinians, who board buses in the West Bank and commute to Israel to work. Israel’s West Bank colonists, planted there illegally and euphemistically referred to as “settlers,” have been bitching up a storm about having to ride with Palestinians. They of course consider every Palestinian a terrorist, though the terrorism best documented in the Occupied Territories in the last several years has been rather one-sided: colonists have been terrorizing, murdering, maiming and pillaging Palestinians with impunity reminiscent of white supremacy’s heyday in the American South. The colonists have been applying pressure on the transportation ministry to end the practice. Monday, the ministry revived its own homage to Plessy v. Ferguson: it gave in to the settlers, and started two segregated bus lines for Palestinians, as racist a practice as the old National City Lines’. Israeli rights groups immediately and correctly tagged them “apartheid lines.”
“Creating separate bus lines for Israeli Jews and Palestinians is a revolting plan,” Jessica Montell, director of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, said on Israel’s Army Radio. “This is simply racism. Such a plan cannot be justified with claims of security needs or overcrowding.”
It’s nothing new. In Hebron, Jews and Arabs are officially have been officially separated since Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli terrorist and colonist, massacred 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 at a mosque in one of Israel’s worst mass killings. In Hebron now, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization writes, “the policy is implemented primarily through severe restrictions on Palestinian travel and movement in downtown Hebron, where most Israeli settlement outposts are located. Some of the main roads in the area are completely off limits to Palestinians, and many roads bar any and all Palestinian vehicles. Israel’s strict restrictions have made the lives of Palestinians in downtown Hebron intolerable, forcing many to leave their homes and jobs.” Last September, Israeli authorities split a key road in half: the wide, paved side is for Israelis, the narrow, dirt passageway is for Palestinians. Still, they don’t call it apartheid. They call it accommodation. They even—correctly—point to Israeli pirate-drivers who extort 15 shekels ($4) from Palestinian workers to drive them in, and say the bus lines are cheaper (8 shekels, or a little over $2). What more do they want?
As always in the United States, what would have triggered demonstrations on campuses and howls in Congress had the offender been, say, South Africa (as was the case in the 1980s) barely warrants mention in the press. The Times noted the new apartheid bus lines in an online posting on March 4, but hasn’t mentioned it in print. The development is drawing more attention in Europe, where human rights issues now resonate more deeply with people than in our routinely reactionary United States. Maybe the surprise, as Yousef Munayyer, the director of the Palestine Center in Washington, tells the Times, is that the bus segregation issue is attracting any attention at all, since apartheid is a fact of life for Palestinians living under martial law since 1967.
LONDON–If you’re reading this, it’s no longer a secret: a little after 6 p.m. today (or eighteen hundred hours, as they more logically call it here in the land of the original meridian), my brother Robert walked into Maroush, a Lebanese restaurant near the center of London, and heard—and saw—us all degenerate drunkards-to-be wish him a happy 50th, that half-century mark we’re all condemned to cross, assuming life doesn’t double-cross us first.
He beamed and so did we, all of us incredulous at what had just been pulled off for a man on whose far-flung friends and relatives the sun never sets: seven or eight months ago his wife hashed out a plan to summon us all, from roughly four continents and enough countries to cook up a World Cup of our own, for a globalist surprise party in the city that birthed globalism. Robert and his family had been living there for the last few years. By January a good 80 to 90 percent of the uncivilized world knew of the plan, except, apparently, my brother. Keeping that kind of secret is not easy in an age when Facebook knows more about us than the combined colonoscopies of the FBI and the National Security Agency ever could, and when Facebook reveals and tags and pokes and reminds and suggests and tattles all it knows, with its users—us complicit snitches—as its most effective collaborators. A few days ago an uncle from New Jersey, his inner ear for sense apparently still disoriented by Sandy, left a blaringly public message on my wife Cheryl’s Facebook page: “Will we see you in London?” She had to kindly tell him to zip it for at least a few more days. I have no idea how Susan (Robert’s wife) and his two children, at least one of whom is a Facebook collaborator, managed to keep the secret. Richard Nixon would have been envious.
I mention all this because I was just as surprised to have traveled 5,000 miles for an evening’s birthday wish (actually, there’s brunch too, Sunday). For Cheryl and me a trip across the ocean seemed as ridiculous as any notion of a vacation. We haven’t had one since launching FlaglerLive, our own little gulag in the sun, three years ago. I’m not complaining. It’d be criminal to complain when I’m able to make a living in a profession with Depression-sized unemployment and a graveyard next to every newspaper. There but for the grace of getting fired went I. But for all its cutting edge gimmickry web journalism is an ironic throwback to grub street, which signs our paychecks. It’s not the sort of living that affords excursions further than Epcot’s version of England and Paris, the absolute outer edge of our family’s solar system for the past three years.
Still, one of the many empty promises I made Cheryl when I convinced her to marry me in the late Clinton years was that I’d take her to the original Paris some day, the one with the authentic Eiffel Tower and equally authentic dog shit on sidewalks. The best I did was Nebraska, Vegas and a wind-whipped place called Hell’s Creek somewhere in Montana, a few days before our actual marriage (with the gay owner of a bed and breakfast in Virginia City as the best best man we could scrounge up for her.) Whenever she’s reminded me of the Paris promise I’ve responded with the best defense since Casablanca: “We’ll always have Orlando.”
Until now. And we didn’t have to rob a bank to do it. Just a bank account.
About the same time Susan was sending secret summonses I got word from the New York Times Co., for one of whose late regional papers I once worked, that we had a one-time offer to do with our retirement pension as we please: cash it out, roll it over to one of those 401-k scams, leave it alone and fantasize that it’ll be there in 20 years, or use it to buy plane tickets to Europe. I doubt the New York Times Co. is going to be around in 20 years. I doubt even more that I’m going to be around that long (there’s a heart attack with my name on it even now chiseling its arterial song on a discount tombstone at Craig Flagler Palms Funeral Home). I cashed out, and not only booked us on that flight to London, but tacked on a Chunnel-linked chunk of time for France, and Paris: promise, finally, kept.
I am back in England after a 34-year absence, in other words, at the expense of my doddering future, though bank theft has never felt so good. But I won’t be here long. The English segment of our Bonnie-and-Clyde act is only four days long.
Because the thing about England is this: I hate it. Beside English football, Antony Burgess and The Economist, I can do without it. It goes back to a traumatic year when I was condemned to an English boarding school when I was 14. The war in Lebanon had been a joy to live through compared to the snot-nosed pasty faced pimply kneed little adolescent upper cruddy-classed terrorists I was suddenly surrounded with. Not to mention the eternal grayish soot that passes for Britain’s sky, the same soot we spied from the plane’s windows as we descended on London in its wee-est hours Friday morning, the same soot I remember depressing me as the 707 of the time, that miserable September morning in 1978, left blue behind and descended into what would prove to be the grayest year of my life.
So the English portion of this journey is not just to celebrate my brother’s 50 years—a brother without whom I doubt I would have survived that plague year in England—but to make my peace with that little segment of my own Canterbury tales. Yes, the awful year was spent in Canterbury, she of the august cathedral and Thomas Beckett’s murder. But of those tales, another day.
Right now we were descending past the soot into a London as unrecognizable to me as it would have been to someone who’d seen its rubble in 1945 (at the end of World War II for you products of our historically illiterate schools), and was seeing it again for the first time since, say, 1978. For this is what struck me as I rode the Underground from Heathrow to Kings Cross station in the thick of rush hour Friday morning, and thinking—as my mind compulsively does when idle or punch drunk for lack of sleep—of those days when these very tubes were the bomb shelters and last prayers of democracy’s last stand against fascism: It has been 34 years since I last set foot in England. And it had been exactly 34 years since the end of World War II when I had first set foot in England. It was a startling, almost frightening realization.
Frightening, because time, that other fascist, is merciless. Those 34 years, like Robert’s 50, passed as if on a high-speed train to Last Rites Station. And startling, because the England of 1978 might as well have been centuries removed from its Blitz days, after only 34 years. Grimy and exhausted though it was in the late 1970s (after the be-Laboured years of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan), as all western democracies were after those decades of economic and social revolutions, England was a country as new as the old empire could possibly be, even then. And that was before Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair remade it anew, again, for good and ill, into an Americanized annex. But with cheap and universal health care, and public transportation of no lesser quality than France’s or Germany’s (which wasn’t the case in 1978). Big headline in the Independent’s Saturday centerfold: “Brash, crude, offensive—and a massive hit: The Book of Mormon, a musical by the creators of South Park, has taken the US by storm and now it’s coming to Britain.” We hadn’t landed in a different country, quite. Just a somewhat socially more responsible, better organized, more crowded, obscenely more expensive one. You get what you pay for.
And a touch more poetic, too. They’ve got a little thing going called “Poems on the Underground” (or was it in?), with poems scattered in advertising emplacements along the curved insides of rail cars just above commuters’ eye level, presumably to give the minuscule minority of people riding the train without an iPhone, a Kindle, or a medieval newsprint tabloid, and the even more minuscule minority of people who still read poetry, something to do. We were dazed from almost 24 hours without sleep since leaving Palm Coast. We had six pieces of luggage handcuffing us. Our eyes wandered, and fell on Jo Shapcott’s “Gherkin Music,” which went something like this:
Walk the spiral
Up out of the pavement
into your own reflection, into
transparency, into the space
when flat planes are curves
an you are transposed
as you go higher into a thought
of flying, joining the game
of brilliance and scattering
when fragments of poems,
words, names fall like glory
into the lightwells until
St. Mary Axe is brimming.
All I can say is that we’d had enough of flying for a day and a night, all transpositions into higher thoughts and falling glories aside. Our arrival had coincided with rush hour on the Picadilly Line, so we were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of rush hour on any subway line anywhere in the world—those morning aromas of fresh showers and innumerable perfumes wrestling it out greco-roman style in our nostrils, the sudden orgiastic intimacy with too many touching bodies to count but for the saving grace of winter’s thick clothing, the cradle-like rhythms of the train’s stops and starts, murder on anyone trying to stay awake against the Atlantic tide of jetlag, and that sound, that cockroachy sound of a half dozen earphones wrestling it out with the voice of that woman, the same woman, the same voice, used by British Rail and the Underground to announce in an accent as swarthy as Dame Judy Dench’s and with intonations more lyrical than any errant poem the list of coming stations on whatever seductive stretch of line we happened to be gliding to end, in our case, at the no less orgasmic terminus called cockfosters.
It was a nice contrast with the labor of rush-hour transit, and the half-hour line to have our passport stamped and the purpose of our stay’s interrogated before our welcomed entry into Her Majesty’s British Empire. They didn’t even check our bags at customs. The Arab look on me must be fading. Or I must be getting very, very old, though my son Luka and his Teddy bear walking next to me was a good decoy. The pastier Britisher behind me, much younger and walking alone, was fingered by a tight-lipped customs lass with her “could you come over here sir, you, yes,” as we walked on into the sooty-gray air of suburban London.
We weren’t done traveling for the day. Our plane had landed at 7 am. Local time. Robert’s party wasn’t until Saturday evening. We had 36 hours. I wasn’t about to waste them resting up, or “preparing” for the party. We had an appointment to our own Samarra at St. Pancras Station—a high-speed train to Canterbury, where we’d spend the day and night, and get that reckoning over with. London would have to wait.
Has there ever been a more sublime version of Danny Boy than Ben Webster’s? I doubt it. He was living in Copenhagen when he died in Amsterdam in September 1973, almost 10 years after deciding to quit his native grounds and live in Europe. His death warranted all of three paragraphs, cribbed from a UPI wire story, in The Times. He’d played with Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Norman Granz, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter and Andy Kirk. He was overshadowed by the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, but only in his lifetime. Death has been kinder to his legacy. “Webster’s playing,” John Wilson wrote in an appreciation for The Times in 1986, “focused on two extremes. One was a raw, tough, swaggering drive that became overwhelming at fast tempos. The other was his ballad approach – tender, melting but with phrasing so accented that even at its gentlest and most introspective his playing swung. Using both aspects, he was completely at home in any musical circumstance.” Here’s his Danny Boy.
For a moment there I wasn’t sure if this was the second inauguration of Barack H. Obama (the Hussein having in every case but one, during the actual swearing in, been ashamedly abbreviated to a less Koranic initial), or if somehow Karl Rove had managed to short-circuit the space-time continuum and jiggered us back to a Bush inaugural. Or worse: a disinterred Romney inaugural.
Gone, for our musical bits, was the grace of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma or the soul of Aretha Franklin, replaced by James Taylor making sap of “America the Beautiful” (an incredible feat for a song that could resist almost any attempt to demolish it), and the bombast of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir lashing two verses from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—the two most bellicose verses of that anthem to jingoists and Christian crusaders, sung at the Washington Cathedral, let’s not forget, three days after the Nine-Eleven attacks. And 23 days before the United States loosed the fateful lightning of its terrible swift sword on the latest of its perpetual wars, the one still marching on us in Afghanistan.
“Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” we were soon to hear from the mouth of Barack H not a few minutes later. Then why those three minutes of worship—an eternity at an inaugural—to Julia Ward Howe, first horsewoman of the apocalypse, and her rewrite of a half dozen of Isaiah’s most vengeful verses?
There were other discordant notes: the presence of the two former Democratic presidents, but neither of the two former Bushes (the elder Bush may be excused: he just got out of the hospital), though Clinton was at Bush’s second inaugural. That’s not Obama’s fault: Bush the Lesser, an AWOL veteran, donned his father’s ill health for fig leaf.
Other unhappy chills, though Washington was in balmy upper 40s: there was not a degree of warmth between the president and Chief Justice John Roberts, who at least didn’t flub the oath giving this time. And at lunch in the Capitol later, even the steamed lobster or the hickory-grilled bison couldn’t warm the last spot on earth untouched by global warming: the space between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, who nevertheless had to present a flag to the president. It never fluttered. Nor did Boehner’s heart. Or ours.
The greatest discordance was between the gilded, arrogantly religious and pompous frame of the inauguration ceremony itself, and the president’s speech: one of his better ones, because it managed to mix the humble with the ambitious, the doable with what’s over and done with. This was not Mr. Nice Guy speaking. Nor, he seemed to say, will Mr. Nice Guy be back any time soon, that stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue aside.
Obama has—or had—always been a gifted speaker (and more so an orator than a writer). But his last great speech was delivered on the campaign trail in 2008, in Philadelphia, when he took on race. That was his “More Perfect Union” speech. His speeches were less than perfect after that. It’s as if he’d taken offense for being seen as a great orator. We were surprised by the soberness, the subdued, unremarkableness of his first victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park that distant night of November 2008, mistaking his strange caution for tiredness, or strategic prudence. Maybe he didn’t want to come off looking like a Triumphant Negro on a night when, beyond Grant Park, millions of shell-shocked bigots who’d spent their lives and their ancestors’ lives swearing that this day would never come were having trouble digesting their crow. Anyway, many of us thought the anti-climactic tone of Grant Park was calculated modesty.
It wasn’t. It was the beginning of a long dusk of half-measures, underscored by the strange timidity of his first inaugural, of bending over backward to accommodate an opposition interested only in slamming it in his rear, of suppressing resolve behind rhetorical flourishes rather than using rhetoric to fuel resolve.
Here was the consummate compromiser who’d deluded himself into thinking that he could create a “post-partisan” age: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply,” he said in his first inaugural. Oh, how wrong he was.
He’d tipped his hand before inauguration day, and by then he was already half devoured by his own caution, down to the cabinet he put together: These weren’t men and women ready to remake the financial world that had just destroyed us, but to mend it as it was, while letting the millions of people who paid the price continue to pay it. As they did. The stimulus package was a half measure. Health care reform was a half measure. The Afghan surge was a half-measure. His prevarications on gay rights, on taxes, on global warming were all half-measures. He broke his promise on Guantanamo’s concentration camp. He was dismal on protecting civil liberties (if less dismal on protecting civil rights), reaffirming some of the worst impulses of the Bush years down to domestic spying, unlimited detentions and the assassination of American citizens.
We survived, but we never thrived, because he was too willing to submit and, stupidly, hope.
The turn-around, oddly enough, was not of his making. It was Joe Biden’s, when old Joe let loose that he was all for gay marriage. None of those half-measures for him. Obama had resisted that switch, assuming still, until then, that the country wasn’t quite ready. Biden taught him a lesson. Make your own resolve, don’t let it be made for you. Obama conceded (after letting Joe make it for him one last time).
And from that point on his rhetoric and his approach on all other matters changed. Gone was the timid accommodator, the appeaser, the nice guy Republicans loved him to be, because he’d always been easier to beat that way. A pre-2009 Obama returned. The Obama of the 2008 campaign. And he won. His victory speech at 2 a.m. on Nov. 7, which most of America missed, was among the best of his life: combative in victory, suggesting the war was ahead. Finally.
The he won the first battle of his new term, beating back the Republican attempt to send the nation over that illusory “fiscal cliff” and winning the first significant tax increase on the rich since 1993. His resolve doesn’t seem to have abandoned him since. The question was whether the resolve would survive inauguration day.
It has. Far from a dud, as these second inaugurals tend to be, today’s speech was bracing in its realism, and very hopeful, ironically, for having finally shed the imagery of hope for hope’s sake. It was much less of the inspirational claptrap of, say, Reagan’s second inaugural (that indoor, clubbish affair, delivered inside the Capitol, because it was very cold: Reagan was already in assisted-living mode), and more of a to-do list wrapped in the awareness of a veteran.
Two themes coursed through the speech: “we, the people” (people was mentioned 11 times, the “we, the people” formula five times) and equality (mentioned eight times): no president has made equality a centerpiece of his intentions since New Deal Democrats: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Joseph Stiglitz must have been smiling. The age of social Darwinism has lasted long enough (1981-2013).
And one of the lines of the day: “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
He also, daringly, finally, took a swipe at Romney’s obscenity of the 47 percent, still gospel on the right-wing talk circuit and looking for a new champion: “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
If he’s framing the next four years into a vision (after being criticized for lacking that vision during the campaign), he’s doing it with seize-the-day assurance: “[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we,” and “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.” It was surprising to hear “climate change” make a cameo in the speech, but disappointing, once again, to hear that Guantanamo did not. It is the forgotten shame.
And here was one of my favorite lines: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” I should add that to our comment policy.
The line was followed by a brief, anxious apologia for half-measures again: “We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years…” But the lines could just as well be read as the awakening of a realist speaking to a nation that has yet get past black-and-white expectations. The adolescent years of the Obama administration may be over. It was about time.
There were a few wonderfully subtle thematic echoes, as when, for the first time ever in an inaugural speech, Obama recognized gays and lesbians in one of several exhortations to equality—that line about our journey not being complete—shortly before Richard Blanco, the first gay poet at an inaugural, recited his uneven but Whitmanesque “One Day” (Whitman, too, was gay).
And when Obama spoke of “the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal,” as “the star that guides us still,” he was as if anticipating the final lines of Blanco’s poem:
And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
That was even more hopeful than Obama’s last line, the one about carrying “into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” The president is self-assured enough this time to embrace uncertainty, and let mere hope, that cheap drug of the gullible optimist, finally be bygone. Good for him. And us.
The following is a transcript of President Obama’s second inaugural speech:
MR. OBAMA: Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, Members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
For more than two hundred years, we have.
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.
We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction – and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope.
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
Thank you, God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America.
I’m having severe morning sickness. Day after day I’ve been waking up to “breaking news” flashes at the New York Times, on ABC News and a couple of other sources about… Kate Middleton’s pregnancy?
I actually clicked on this morning’s “breaking news” email from ABC. Here’s what it said: “Kate Middleton Leaves the Hospital After Being Treated for Severe Morning Sickness [6 a.m. ET].” Each word capitalized in the original. It was right after the email from the Florida Highway Patrol informing me of a fatality on I-95, a woman in her late 20s, killed last night just across the Flagler-St. Johns county line. She was either standing on the road or crossing it when southbound vacationers from Pennsylvania in their late 50s and early 60s (a couple from Selinsngroove, a town the size of a Florida subdivision) struck her with their RV-pulling SUV. Night had just fallen. The F-150’s right-front bumper struck the young woman and sent her flying to the shoulder. And Charlotte and Richard Stanley, who were in the F-150, must now live the rest of their lives with this inadvertent fatality on their conscience.
It could be a suicide. It could be that the woman was not well. She hasn’t been identified: had no identification on her (otherwise FHP would have known her age), no identifying marks, other than the telltale signs of homelessness. “Next of kin has not been made,” the report says, in what could be the final official words on the woman’s life. The woman’s parents, her siblings, her “kin” are out there, unknowing. It’s often said of some people that they know more about Britain’s royals than they do about their own family. For one family this morning it’s as literal a fact as it gets: they know more about Kate Middleton’s morning sickness than they do about their own kin’s death.
This unknown dead person is as far removed from royalty as she can possibly be: a homeless, nameless, dead woman who had “come to final rest on the west grassy shoulder” of an Interstate, as abject a place to die as any. Yet if I were to judge what matters more in the world today between Middleton’s nausea and that woman’s death, it wouldn’t be a choice. Only the fate of the homeless woman is news. Whatever happens to Middleton or to any royals is clutter. These people, these meandering parodies of a past stuck in formaldehyde, aren’t news. They’re show business. They’re soap operas. They’re spectacle and buffoonery 76 years past their expiration date. Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 was the perfect opportunity to abolish a monarchy that has no place in a democracy. Awe and deference to inheritance, privilege and patronage as opposed to merit and usefulness is the daily embarrassment of a nation whose monarch still speaks in terms of “empire” and “subjects”—a monarch who still speaks at all, even addressing Parliament in an annual New Year ritual of time-sucking—when she should have been hauled off to a nice country estate near the Land’s End Hotel in Cornwall, with a comfortable pension and a chauffeur, and left to answer fan mail there decades ago.
It’s not for lack of royals that Buckingham Palace (the world’s most expensive and tax-supported assisted living facility) and the Tower of London (the city’s chief attraction) will lack for tourists anymore than the disappearance of the Bourbons has diminished foot traffic at Versailles and the Tuileries. The lurid antics of Charles Diana Camilla and whoever was the sister or sister in law who alternately posed nude or got fat and thin on Oprah’s body clock (I’m grateful for these memory lapses) have piled on the reasons to do away with the circus, which cutely flew when the queen supposedly did at the opening of the London Olympics.
There’s one good argument for maintaining the monarchy: people want it. “That is the contradiction at the heart of a constitutional monarchy,” the Economist wrote in 1994, “that an unelected institution, redolent of authority and selected by accident of birth, depends for its legitimacy on the popular will.” A referendum would likely keep the circus in place, because people are too fond of crowning distractions from their own lurid lives.
But when national media such as the Times and ABC News play along, we have our own constitutional crisis on our hands. Democracy doesn’t long survive the idiocy of its constituents. Tanks are being deployed in Cairo, the fear of chemical weapons drifts across the Syrian civil war, untold thousands are left reeling from their own Hurricane Sandy in the Philippines, our own political clowns have yet to scale the cliffs of their fiscal cheapness in Washington, but Kate Middleton’s morning sickness is what warrants the modern version of press-stopping “breaking news.” It would be nice to be spared the exhibitionism.
That nameless woman who died yesterday evening on I-95 is right now on a slab at the medical examiner’s office in St. Augustine. She never was news and never will be again. But chances are she had a more interesting life, if not a life worthier of attention, than Kate Middleton ever has, or will.
On Monday Palm Coast City Council member Bill Lewis sent me a note correcting an error in my Sunday column: he had in fact run a competitive campaign once, though he has yet to win one. I’d mistakenly written that he had done neither. The error was immediately corrected.
The following day however, Lewis took to the floor of a city council meeting for a little over two minutes and publicly but inaccurately ridiculed me. You can hear his two minutes below. The ridicule is not objectionable. It’s every journalist’s vest at one time or another. But Lewis’s inaccuracies—at least six of them in two minutes—are objectionable, considering that Lewis’s complaint was about getting one’s facts straight. I would have normally addressed him between me and the Sunshine law in an email. Since he chose to broadcast his errors publicly, they must be corrected publicly.
“If you want to be an avenging angel,” you said in remarks directed at me from your council seat Tuesday morning, “you should perhaps get your facts straight.”
You might want to take your own advice, preferably without abusing your council seat to falsely scold others. If your two-minute comment had been published on FlaglerLive, I’d have had to run at least six corrections, two of them about your own personal history. You publicly ridiculed my memory. I won’t ridicule yours, having a mother dying of Alzheimer’s in our lovely town here. But I will correct you.
One error was made in the article in question: you never won a competitive race, but indeed ran one in 2005. The original line had it that you hadn’t run one. You alerted me to the error in an email on Monday, at 12:53 p.m. The error was corrected 24 minutes later, and a confirmation email sent to you to that effect, a faster correction turn-around than you’d get in any other media. FlaglerLive publishes on average 5,000 words a day, or the weekly equivalent of a magazine in the thick-paged 1960s, before ads devoured all content. It’s a lot of volume produced with a premium on immediacy over 15-hour days. Mistakes are made and are regrettable. The New York Times runs 10 to 20 corrections a day, despite the benefit of a few hundred editors lucky enough to work eight-hour days. But mistakes are corrected promptly and gladly, and if we could afford free hats to tip and gift to those who point them out, we would (and soon might).
What you did not do, Bill, is note to your little audience that the mistake was immediately corrected, an error of omission on your part that belies a sly bit of dishonesty I did not know you capable of. Live and learn.
Second, you stated, incorrectly but to much snickering mileage from your colleagues, that I endorsed you while at the News-Journal, and that I forgot that I endorsed you. My memory is often a wreck, but not so much that it would require an ex-chemist to tell me why I wrote what I wrote in 2005. And you misunderstand the way a newspaper editorial board works. We debated, argued, deliberated, and only then voted. You might try it sometime. The News-Journal editorial board as a whole voted to endorse you. I personally did not, and was often in dissent on that board, particularly in matters dealing with Palm Coast recommendations, where age or incumbency or skin color or party affiliation sometimes took on innate virtues I categorically disagreed with. You were three-for-four coming into the interview. You were in a four-way race (you seem to have forgotten Cunnane and Crabill), though you and Alan Peterson were clearly the front-runners. But I admired Peterson then and considered him far more in command of his facts and his eagerness to do his homework than you were. His years on the council and the county commission since only confirmed my original impressions, as your years on the council have as well. I was, of course, outvoted at the time, as were you, until your coin toss.
Third, you have not won a competitive race, and to claim that running unopposed in a city where the mayor was elected by barely 5 percent of the electorate amounts to an endorsement of the voters is a little disingenuous. We were never given a choice to vote for you or not. You won by default. You could say the same of Barbara Revels or Suzanne Johnston, but they each won their first election competitively, appearing before forums, facing the challenges of a campaign and of a challenger, answering the tough questions, as you never have in a winning campaign. It’s obviously a sore point with you, but it’s neither semantics nor accurate to say that you have won a competitive election. You simply have not. Maybe you’ll change that in 2014.
You mentioned being appointed to the council two years after your first run. It was actually three. Not a big deal, but your error would have required a correction in any self-respecting publication all the same. You mentioned running two years later unopposed. It was actually one year later. You twice mis-identified FlaglerLive—as “Flagler Times” and “Flagler Online,” two outlets that have long gone the way of the 8-track. Again, not a big deal, though the casual derision you show a local non-profit business supported by innumerable local businesses and 9,000 daily readers, while not surprising (you channel your city manager well), is nevertheless distasteful for an elected representative. Perhaps some small businesses are worthier than others in your eyes, a mode of discrimination I would rather not know you capable of. Or perhaps you thought it was your turn to take a shot at local media, after Jon’s and fellow-Bill’s shot at WNZF.
And I did not “castrate” the city council on how it approached the Ferguson appointment, as you put it. I only castigated it, though as a metaphor for the council, you might be on to something. I’m not in the habit of exploiting verbal slips, either. It’s quite crass. But so is publicly lecturing someone about getting his facts straight from behind a house glassier than Sammy Davis Jr.’s left eye.
Of course, you never addressed the essence of the article in question, choosing to divert an argument about a council’s arrogance to a councilman’s dented pride. But between your sneers and the attaboy titters of your very grown-up colleagues, you illustrated the original point very well. Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving.