Friday, February 17, 2006

Rule By Executive Order

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The wonderful thing about Zen practice is that you get to do it whether you like it or not.

---Zen saying

When we are not sure, we are alive.

---Graham Greene

I lay on the bowsprit, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight towering above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment lost myself---actually lost my life. I was set free...dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm and the high dim-starred sky....I belonged within a unity and joy to life itself.

---Eugene O'Neill

I do not want to talk about the hunting weekend. As Joel Achenbach says the incident already has had more coverage than the landing at Normandy. What interests me are the final moments of the Britt Hume interview Wednesday on SweetMother Fox:

Q On another subject, court filings have indicated that Scooter Libby has suggested that his superiors -- unidentified -- authorized the release of some classified information. What do you know about that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's nothing I can talk about, Brit. This is an issue that's been under investigation for a couple of years. I've cooperated fully, including being interviewed, as well, by a special prosecutor. All of it is now going to trial. Scooter is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He's a great guy. I've worked with him for a long time, have enormous regard for him. I may well be called as a witness at some point in the case and it's, therefore, inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case.

Q Let me ask you another question. Is it your view that a VicePresident has the authority to declassify information?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: There is an executive order to that effect.

Q There is.


Q Have you done it?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I've certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions. The executive order --

Q You ever done it unilaterally?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't want to get into that. There is an executive order that specifies who has classification authority, and obviously focuses first and foremost on the President, but also includes the Vice President.

Fortunately Pete Yost, of the Associated Press, picked up on the comment yesterday...but I hardly notice the nation reeling from this announcement. Here's his account...but stick with me: I've got more questions about this~~~;_ylt=AhYQ2.uKi46eNy37deHuedas0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTA3OXIzMDMzBHNlYwM3MDM-

Cheney Says He Can Declassify Secrets
By PETE YOST, Associated Press Writer
Thu Feb 16, 8:36 AM ET

Vice President Dick Cheney says he has the power to declassify government secrets, raising the possibility that he authorized his former chief of staff to pass along sensitive prewar data on Iraq to reporters.

Cheney coupled his statement in a TV interview Wednesday with an endorsement of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his ex-aide. Libby is under indictment on charges of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about disclosing the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.

"Scooter is entitled to the presumption of innocence," Cheney told Fox News Channel. "He is a great guy. I worked with him for a long time. I have tremendous regard for him. I may well be called as a witness at some point in the case, and it is therefore inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case."

In a recent court filing, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald revealed Libby's assertions to a grand jury that superiors had authorized him to spread sensitive information from a National Intelligence Estimate. The administration used the NIE assessment on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction as part of its justification for going to war.

At the time of Libby's contacts with reporters in June and July 2003, the administration, including Cheney, who was among the war's most ardent proponents, faced growing criticism.

No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and Bush supporters were anxious to show that the White House had relied on prewar intelligence projecting a strong threat from such weapons.

Fitzgerald did not specify which superiors Libby may have been referring to when he testified that higher-ups had authorized him to spread sensitive information.

But in the interview, Cheney said an executive order gives him, and President Bush, power to declassify information.

"I have certainly advocated declassification. I have participated in declassification decisions," Cheney said. Asked for details, he said, "I don't want to get into that. There's an executive order that specifies who has classification authority, and obviously it focuses first and foremost on the president, but also includes the vice president."

Libby is not charged with leaking classified information, and his lawyers said last week that there was no truth to a published report that they had advised the court or prosecutors that Libby will raise a defense based on authorization by superiors.

A legal expert said Cheney's comments could nonetheless foreshadow a Libby defense.

Former Whitewater independent counsel Robert Ray said, "If the focus is off the defendant and on to somebody else, generally for the defense that's a good day. If it turns out that Cheney was actively involved in decisions related to the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity and if the truth of it is that he was orchestrating the disclosure of information to the media, it seems to me that's a fundamentally different case than one centered around the activities of Libby."

The indictment against Libby says Cheney advised his chief of staff on June 12, 2003, that the wife of Bush administration critic and former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson worked at the CIA in the counterproliferation division.

Libby understood that the vice president had learned this information from the CIA, according to the indictment, which says Libby also learned of Wilson's wife's identity from the CIA and the State Department.

On July 14, 2003, the CIA identity of Valerie Plame — the maiden name of Wilson's wife — was published by columnist Robert Novak. Eight days earlier, Wilson had accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat. Wilson concluded it was highly doubtful that a purported sale of uranium yellowcake by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990s had ever taken place.

Libby was indicted last October on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about how he learned of Plame's identity and what he told reporters about it.

A defense that Libby was authorized to leak sensitive data about Iraq would not appear to provide any defense against the charge of making false statements regarding Plame.

But some lawyers pointed out that setting up defenses before a jury involve more than simply constructing legal arguments.

An authorization defense in the CIA leak case would mean that "much of what Libby was trying to do was aid and protect his boss Cheney," Ray suggested. The downside to employing such an approach is that it "almost comes with a defense that I did it."

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press.

My first question is What Executive Order is that, and who issued it? Yeah, maybe the Executive should be the one to declassify documents in his jurisdiction, but does it sound like America to you if he also declares himself to have the right to do it? Shouldn't that be something the Congress or Supreme Court would do?

Let's say a law exists on the books. The law was written by Congress and signed by the President. What if it says it's illegal to identify a covert CIA operative? Can the Executive or Vice Executive declassify information that thereby reveals such an identity without breaking that law? Can an Executive issue any Order he wants...and expect it to supercede the law of the land? Is that where we are?

I have to confess I dropped out of the only course in Constitutional Law I ever attempted in graduate school. So where can a guy like me find out about Executive Orders...and this one in particular? After 3 hours of sifting through all the questions about Cheney's shooting itself (What were those guys doing on a remote ranch with a couple of women on Valentine's Weekend without their spouses? How drunk were they? Who else has been hit by birdshot at that supposed range, what was it like, and how many layers of clothing did it go through? How close would you have to be to hit just that area of face and shoulder...and to get the shot floating through the bloodstream and into the heart? Is Whittington actually dead and the guy in the hospital an imposter?), I found that "georgia10" at Daily Kos was on top of it.

"The Executive's authority to classify or declassify information does not come from Congressional statute. Rather, Presidents have long held that it is part of the President's inherent authority. Courts have concurred.

"In 1951, President Truman signed Executive Order 10290 (pdf), the President relied on his Constitutional authority as President of the United States to enact a classification scheme. Such language has been included in classification orders since then.

"In Department of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518 (1988), the Supreme Court stated in its dicta that the authority to control access to sensitive information is vested in the President of the United States. Accordingly, an argument can be made that the President need not 'ask permission' from the CIA or NSA or anyone when it comes to classifying or declassifying information."

But where does Cheney get off saying he can do it too? What follows at Daily Kos obviously is Bush's whole strategy~~~

"Now, let's examine the current policy in the Bush administration with respect to classified information:

Sec. 1.3. Classification Authority. (a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:(1) the President and, in the performance of executive duties, the Vice President;

"This section deals with classification authority. Does it include declassification as well? If the President and Vice-President have the discretion to unilaterally classify information, would it not follow that they have the discretion to unilaterally declassify it?

"Part 3 of the order deals with declassification. Plame's identity and occupation were classified and should have remained classified. But, Cheney may have an escape route in this section:

3.1(b) It is presumed that information that continues to meet the classification requirements under this order requires continued protection. In some exceptional cases, however, the need to protect such information may be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure of the information, and in these cases the information should be declassified. When such questions arise, they shall be referred to the agency head or the senior agency official. That official will determine, as an exercise of discretion, whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure.

"How do we know Cheney will cling to this provision for dear life if his authority to declassify is indeed challenged? Because this has been his office's defense since Day 1. Notice that the standard is 'public interest in the disclosure of information.' An extremely broad standard which provides more than enough wiggle room for Cheney to claim he authorized the leaking of Plame's identity and name to 'set the record straight' and minimize the damage Wilson was doing to the case for war. Note that this section of the Executive Order does not speak to motive. I'd also note that particular section is not new but was first enacted under President Clinton in Executive Order 12356, signed in 1995.

"Up until this point, it looks like Cheney is in the clear, at least legally speaking. But let's examine another section pertaining to declassification, Sec. 4.1. General Restrictions on Access:

4.1(c) Classified information shall remain under the control of the originating agency or its successor in function. An agency shall not disclose information originally classified by another agency without its authorization. An official or employee leaving agency service may not remove classified information from the agency's control.

"It reads that 'an agency' shall not disclose information without authorization. Does 'an agency' include the Vice-President of the United States? Yep. In the definitional section of the order:

(i) "Agency" means any "Executive agency," as defined in 5 U.S.C. 105, and any other entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information.

"So, if we accept that 'entity' includes individual entities like the Vice-President, it looks like Cheney should have asked permission from the 'originating agency' (the CIA) before authorizing Libby to leak. Also, it may be that Cheney's declassification--even if it was consistent with this order--should have gone through the mandatory declassification review in Section 3.5(a).

"Prior to March 25, 2003, the authority to unilaterally classify and perhaps declassify info was vested solely in the President. However, with Executive Order 13292, President Bush greatly expanded Vice-Presidential power. He changed many sections throughout his original order, each time granting Cheney the authority to exercise the same power as the President. Basically, any time the order stated that the President had authority to do something (which, as explained above, that authority is derived from the Constitution), Bush tacked on the phrase 'and in the performance of executive duties, the Vice President'. Bush essentially then delegated that Constitutional authority granted solely to him as Commander-in-Chief to the Vice-President of the United States.

"As 'A Patriot' points out, the timing of the March 25, 2003 order is incredibly suspicious. Why did the President choose March 2003 to enact such a starking aggrandizemnet of Vice-Presidential power? It was in March, as we all know, that the decision to smear Wilson was made:

Wilson connects Cheney to the events involving his wife through a meeting he said occurred in March 2003. He charged that Cheney's staff -- with at least the 'implicit' involvement of the vice president -- met and decided to investigate his background. The investigation, he said, uncovered his wife's role at the CIA.

"'The office of the vice president, either the vice president himself or more likely his chief of staff, chaired a meeting at which a decision was made to do a "work-up" on me,' Wilson wrote in The Politics of Truth.

"So the decision was made to smear the Wilson by leaking the information about his wife. Such a leak could not originate from the President's office--too dangerous, its members too high-profile, and we know that the dirty deeds have been orchestrated by the vice-president's office in the past. Did the President and the Vice-President conspire then to alter the exective order to give the Vice-President the authority to orchestrate the smear?

"Perhaps that is why Bush was able to say with such a straight face the following:

He added that he did not know of 'anybody in my administration who leaked classified information.'

Because of the changes to his order, it's possible Bush thinks that the information wasn't 'leaked,' but rather was 'declassified' by the newly vested authority by the Vice-President. Libby, as his defense claims, didn't leak 'classified' information. They read over the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and concocted the perfect defense. The act reads in part:

Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

"Cheney was the one with authorized access. He disclosed that information to one authorized to receive classified information. But at that moment, the information, according to Cheney, was no longer classified, giving Libby the cover to disseminate the info at will. That explains why the Bush administration has embraced a 'fine, go ahead, investigate us' attitude. They believe that, by virtue of Bush's cover-up amendments, that they have all the legal cover they need.

"The defense all along was to set this up as an authorized disclosure. This tactic is not surprising at all. Break the law, then bend the law to cover up your lawlessness.

"Do you recall that when it became clear Rove had leaked the information to reports, there was a flurry of articles about how 'upset' Bush was, that he felt betrayed by Karl? In the New York Daily News (yes, I know) there was a hint that the anger wasn't at the disclosure, but at the fact the Office of the President was tied to the leak:

A second well-placed source said some recently published reports implying Rove had deceived Bush about his involvement in the Wilson counterattack were incorrect and were leaked by White House aides trying to protect the President.

"Bush did not feel misled so much by Karl and others as believing that they handled it in a ham-handed and bush-league way," the source said.

"That's because, as this whole conspiracy illustrates, the plan was to confine the smear to the Office of the Vice-President. That is why the order was amended to give Cheney the power to smear. That is why Libby was the main leaker. When Rove's deviousness tempted him to play along, he screwed up the plan by tainting the Office of the President with the leak.

"The Vice-President's decision to declassify this information may not be judged in the courts, but rather in the court of public opinion. Courts long have been hesitant to question the President's discretion in dealing with classified materials. Does such deference extend to the Vice-President? Even if the legal cover-up here withstands or avoid judicial review, what will the public make of the fact that Vice-President Cheney committed a crime, but President Bush chauffeured the getaway car?"

This is my first reading of anything by georgia10, and I must say I am impressed indeed. But after all this, here's what I want to know:

Let's say the President and Vice President decide that somebody's report is not creditable because the man's wife had something to do, however remote, with his getting the assignment. Let's say they don't believe in cronyism anymore. What's to stop them from calling a press conference and declaring the situation openly? Why can't they order somebody else to check Wilson's work if it's wrong? Why didn't they?


For those of you interested in the different perspectives of what went on at that 50,000 acre ranch, here's a pile of links~~~

Molly Ivins wondering how liberal Whittington is Huffington about the Armstrong "get-away" and all the deals that have been made there, including Cheney's 30 years of hanging out there Globe compilation of Cheney's history of secrecy Dean calls on Cheney to resign;_ylt=AsG61N1ZoY37xO2l8zOF2QQGw_IE;_ylu=X3oDMTA3OXIzMDMzBHNlYwM3MDM-Veteran hunters talk about birdshot actually is dead (this is humor) of questions remain after the Fox interview Zepp's typically brilliant essay about hunting drunk in Texas
And oh yes, the unbelievable prayer visualization that illustrates this article

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Our Valentine

Dana in courtship decor, 1981. Somehow my escape plan never materialized. Posted by Picasa

All the way to Heaven is Heaven.

---St.Catherine of Siena

If only I may grow: firmer, simpler---quieter, warmer.

---Dag Hammarskjold

Since everything is none other than exactly as it is, one may well just break out in laughter.

---Long Chen Pa

The marriage had lasted but 5 years. The exterior usually was ideal. Photos of us look perfect. Wonderful job, nice home, great friends, and most important 2 magnificent children. But there was discontent---unacknowledged, and it had spread fatally. The year was 1968, the sexual revolution just had begun, and there had to be a first victim. We were it.

I didn't take the divorce well. I didn't think it was right. I was ashamed. There never had been divorce on either side of my family---that I know of. That's the point: where I came from, dairyfarming and grapegrowing Western New York, such a thing was a disgrace. She was from Connecticut, where you took "incompatability" in your stride. When she remarried 4 years later she said cheerily, "Now the children will have TWO fathers." I didn't look at it as a grand opportunity. I was bereft not to be raising those kids under my own roof.

My journey of wild wander and mythic monsters had begun in a Bridgeport courtroom. Fifteen years later I was wreckage on a distant shore. There had been tumultuous relationships, all failed. Jobs came and went. In 1974, I found myself in Houston, at John Lomax Jr.'s funeral, sitting in a corner on the floor, weeping. I wanted to go home. I did.

Back in Jamestown after 10 or 15 years, looking for my roots and shelter from the storm, reunion with family wasn't exactly a bed of roses. Emotionally I was coming apart...and a couple of affairs and jobs attempted didn't help. By 1978 I needed a psychiatrist...and somehow got one just right for me then. He was from India and he talked all the time. He didn't think I was crazy, and gave me medication that had me floating like a butterfly. He said I had to succeed at my job, because otherwise I'd have no money to come see him. It was that simple.

A couple years later, I was introduced to Dana through her family. Cousins thought we'd like each other. They lived around my town and we were friends. She was visiting from Ohio. I'd never been there, only passing through a couple times to somewhere else, and I had no interest in visiting the place. I accepted the invitation to meet her down in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, one Saturday afternoon. She was younger and I felt like some kind of celebrity. I don't think we were attracted particularly, but we must have chatted pleasantly enough to consider going to a movie that evening. The only shows we wanted to see were playing as a double feature at a drive-in. Once we got there, some kind of magical chemistry took over...and that was it. We finally actually watched those movies at a later date.

The formality of a family introduction appealed to my 1950s sensibilities. I'm one of the only people I know of who's been called both a beatnik and a hippie. But underneath all that is an upbringing of structure and order. This was the first relationship since my marriage that was beginning with this kind of respectability. I had learned that when I "pick up" women---in a bar, a museum, a shop---I lose them the same way I find them. I couldn't take that anymore. Maybe I was ready to settle down.

We courted long distance for only a year. Perhaps we didn't know each other well enough, but we decided we wanted to live together. Dana wasn't that interested in marriage, even if we both wanted children, which we did. I knew my family would go off the deep end if we had a child out of wedlock, so it was I who pushed for getting married. I managed to get to Ohio in my dying Dodge, and asked for her hand in a formal meeting with her mother and father. They didn't know what to make of such a thing. Both well educated with careers, he professing English at OU and she directing a nursing service, they were liberated people...and hardly prepared to accept or refuse a daughter's suitor. "Whatever would make her happy." A date was set for the summer of 1982. One year later our son was born. We welcomed our daughter a few years after that.

Looking back at this Valentine over all those years, we probably are closer to agreement and happiness than we ever have been. We turned out to be the kind of couple that remains 2 distinct individuals. It takes so much hard work, often with irritable rubbing into each other's territory, that our children are surprised when they see us kissing and hugging. What has carried us through is our love of music and laughter, Nature and drama, religion and politics. When we do things together, like shopping and working, we have fun.

Dana is more creative than I am. The ideas she comes up with, supported always with careful research, never stop emerging. I have to be on my toes, and while I may moan and complain I try to balance it with my sincere admiration for her. She found me like some forgotten item at a garage sale. She took me home as a fix-up opportunity. She insisted I get off the butterfly medication immediately. (We informed the doctor a few months later, and he couldn't believe we had managed it.) Over time I see she has allowed me to put myself together, rather than turn me into something I'm not. She has a vast perception, and we keep up with each other. Often one is ahead on something and the other has to catch up...but gradually we are learning to walk together. Love takes time. I guess we both knew that. We are loving more. We are opening our eyes to see Heaven.

Letter To The American Left~~~The WHAT?

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There is neither heaven nor earth,
only snow,
falling incessantly.


Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the Divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable. It is true.

---Thomas Merton

Don't play as if you've swallowed the metronome!

---Nadia Boulanger

OK, the letter is from Bernard-Henri Lévy...which may be a problem over here. The first a lot of us probably heard of him was due to a review by Garrison Keillor of American Vertigo on the front page in the New York Times last month. I didn't like the review and thought it revealed Keillor at his uptight-pretending-to-be-cool worst. Levy responded to it a little in an interview, but appears not really to know who Keillor is. So they're even. I doubt Garrison did much more, besides reading the book under review, than Google BHL exhausting proposition.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France's leading philosophers and one of the most esteemed writers in Europe. After starting his career as a war reporter for Combat, the legendary newspaper founded by Albert Camus during the Nazi occupation of France, Lévy became famous as the founder of the New Philosophers group. He's the author of 30 books, including works of philosophy, fiction, and biography and is an activist and filmmaker. His books include Barbarism with a Human Face, Reflections on War, Century of Sartre, Evil and the End of History, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and American Vertigo. His films include the documentaries Bosna! and A Day in the Death of Sarajevo. Lévy is co-founder of the antiracist group SOS Racism and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government, most recently heading a fact finding mission to Afghanistan in the wake of the war against the Taliban. For at least a dozen years he's been married to Arielle Dombasle, who regularly is voted in France to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I think he's being truthful when he says he really loves the United States. The letter that follows will be in the February 27th issue of The Nation.

A Letter to the American Left
Translated from the original French by Charlotte Mandell.

Nothing made a more lasting impression during my journey through America than the semi-comatose state in which I found the American left.

I know, of course, that the term "left" does not have the same meaning and ramifications here that it does in France.

And I cannot count how many times I was told there has never been an authentic "left" in the United States, in the European sense.

But at the end of the day, my progressive friends, you may coin ideas in whichever way you like. The fact is: You do have a right. This right, in large part thanks to its neoconservative battalion, has brought about an ideological transformation that is both substantial and striking.

And the fact is that nothing remotely like it has taken shape on the other side--to the contrary, through the looking glass of the American "left" lies a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void that, for a reader of Whitman or Thoreau, is thoroughly enigmatic. The 60-year-old "young" Democrats who have desperately clung to the old formulas of the Kennedy era; the folks of who have been so great at enlisting people in the electoral lists, at protesting against the war in Iraq and, finally, at helping to revitalize politics but whom I heard in Berkeley, like Puritans of a new sort, treating the lapses of a libertine President as quasi-equivalent to the neo-McCarthyism of his fiercest political rivals; the anti-Republican strategists confessing they had never set foot in one of those neo-evangelical mega-churches that are the ultimate (and most Machiavellian) laboratories of the "enemy," staring in disbelief when I say I've spent quite some time exploring them; ex-candidate Kerry, whom I met in Washington a few weeks after his defeat, haggard, ghostly, faintly whispering in my ear: "If you hear anything about those 50,000 votes in Ohio, let me know"; the supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton who, when I questioned them on how exactly they planned to wage the battle of ideas, casually replied they had to win the battle of money first, and who, when I persisted in asking what the money was meant for, what projects it would fuel, responded like fundraising automatons gone mad: "to raise more money"; and then, perhaps more than anything else, when it comes to the lifeblood of the left, the writers and artists, the men and women who fashion public opinion, the intellectuals--I found a curious lifelessness, a peculiar streak of timidity or irritability, when confronted with so many seething issues that in principle ought to keep them as firmly mobilized as the Iraq War or the so-called "American Empire" (the denunciation of which is, sadly, all that remains when they have nothing left to say).

For an outside observer it is passing strange, for instance, that a number of progressives needed, by their own admission, to wait for Hurricane Katrina before they got indignant about, or even learned about, the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities.

For a European intellectual used to the battlefield of ideas, it is simply incomprehensible that more voices weren't raised long ago, in the name of no less than the force of "the Enlightenment," to denounce the ridiculous fraud of the anti-Darwinian supporters of "intelligent design."

And what about the death penalty? How can it be that there isn't yet, within the political parties, especially the Democratic Party--which everyone knows will never budge on the question without decisive internal pressure--a trend of opinion calling for the abolition of this civilized barbarity?

And Guantánamo? And Abu Ghraib? And the special prisons in Central Europe, those areas where the rule of law no longer applies? I know, of course, that the press has denounced them. I know you have journalists who, in a matter of days, accomplished what our French press still hasn't finished forty years after our Algerian War. But since when does the press excuse citizens from their political duties? Why haven't we heard from more intellectuals like Susan Sontag--or even Gore Vidal and Tony Kushner (with whom I disagree on most other grounds) on this vexed and vital issue? And what should we make of that handful of individuals who, after September 11, launched the debate about the circumstances in which torture might suddenly be justified?

And I'm not even talking about Bush. I won't even mention Bush's gross lies about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, except for the sake of assembling the conclusive evidence. I know, of course, that you denounce him--but mechanically, I am almost tempted to say ritualistically. And yet the United States nearly impeached Nixon because he had spied on his enemies and lied. They impeached Clinton for a venial lie about inappropriate conduct. How is it, then, that it took so long to draw a parallel between those lies and a lie about which the least you can say is that its consequences were anything but venial? How is it that so few "public intellectuals" have been found, within the confines of this formidable, impetuous American democracy, who can bring up the idea of impeaching George Bush for lying?

Some will retort that the "public intellectual" is a European specialty, that we shouldn't blame Americans for their infidelity to a tradition that is not their own. What do such killjoys make of the Norman Mailer of the 1960s? Of the Arthur Miller of The Crucible? Or of that golden age of civil rights awareness, when great writers enunciated what was right and good and true?

Others will object that the massive, resounding mobilization of civil society is not an American custom. All you need to do to convince yourself of the untruth of this is remember the 1960s and the movement for civil rights, then for the rights of minorities in general, which were the honor of the country and did not stem, let it be emphasized, from any of the major political parties.

Still others will wax ironic about the disease of writing up petitions, a French specialty, warded off by American pragmatism. Here the objection is more serious; and I know the fatuity that can exist in the mania for nonstop political engagement in the name of myriad causes--but aren't you afflicted, my American friends, with the radically opposite sickness? Hasn't the ethics of sobriety won once too often, with you, over the ethics of conviction? And how could one not yearn for a petition that would address our common nausea when faced with the spectacle of a diabetic, blind, nearly deaf old man, pushed in his wheelchair to the San Quentin execution chamber in California?

I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that a large part of the country is waiting for this. Everywhere, in the innermost reaches of America, you can meet men and women who hope for great voices capable of echoing their impatience in a momentous way. If I were an American writer, I would try to ponder the lessons of the totalitarian century and those of democracy, Tocqueville-style, all at once, in the same breath, and with the same rigor.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Young Love: Together In France

Graduating from Middle School last year, Ilona and Keenan, with one of his sisters Ameena. Posted by Picasa

The first thing you learn in life is you're a fool. The last thing you learn is you're the same fool. Sometimes I think I understand everything. Then I regain consciousness.

---Ray Bradbury

I embrace emerging experience. I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector.

---William Stafford

One day a student asked Taiga, "What is the most difficult part of painting?"
Taiga answered: "The part of the paper where nothing is painted is the most difficult."

---Artist Zen

Yesterday I was sitting around the faculty lounge of one of the Ohio University colleges with a friend. He's a professor and director of graduate programs there. We were drinking some coffee, eating chocolate, and watching the Winter Olympics. Mostly we were talking though. Maybe that combination got us into the topic of early love affairs, but that's what happened. We were comparing our high school experiences. They were rather different, as he was born in Bangladesh.

This morning I'm trying to think back to my very first days of spending time with girls. One time, possibly during the summer vacation between 4th and 5th grade, I went over to see what my little blue-eyed, blonde-haired girlfriend (that my mother approved of a lot) was doing...and as usual her kinda large, faithful, possessive friend Jeannie was there. They were playing house. Being the open-minded, already-liberated guy you know, even in the late '40s, I offered to play. Well...I asked if I could play. Carol and Jeannie whispered together a while, and then said yes. They said I should get up on the porch railing and stand there. I could be Air.

One autumn day in 7th grade social studies class, Miss Weatherly seized a note Carol was passing to Jeannie...and made her stand up in front of the class and read it. She turned the color of a strawberry and with trembling voice did so. It said that her mother didn't want her to be my girlfriend anymore and that she was making her break up with me. Mom feared it would get too serious and we were too young. Then she sat down, put her head in her arms on her desk, and wept ferociously. I was shattered---and part of me still is. Carol married a guy from West Point...and I don't know what happened to Miss Weatherly.

My daughter was in 7th grade 2 years ago, and I was assisting a multihandicapped class in the same school. For the next 2 years I would see Ilona everyday during her lunch period, because I had cafeteria duty...which means you kinda stand around invisible (like Air) and make sure there are no fights. Early in her 8th grade year, I noticed she was starting to sit at a table with all guys. No other girl was doing that, but gradually a few of her friends were curious enough to join her. These particular guys were pretty smart and clever, and so I wasn't concerned. I was rather intrigued. The day it was announced Kerry had lost the election, she found out about it there from Silvie. She stood up, mouth open, turned to suddenly-not-invisible-anymore Dad, came across the whole cafeteria, and wrapped herself around me in tears. We sat down together and collected ourselves. It's one of the proudest moments I have as a parent.

When she went back to that table, I noticed one guy emerged who seemed to comfort her. From that time to this, Keenan has been her friend. Relatively quickly I guess they found affection, and the next February they had declared themselves "going together." In fact Valentine's Day is their "first anniversary," she says. I guess going together is what we called "going steady." Now, in such a situation you don't necessarily "go" anywhere. It's sort of a safe haven for exploration of tender sensitivities, feelings, and loyalties, just outside a turbulent ocean of upheaval. Around Ilona's birthday last year, they had planned a date at last---but what a date! He'd asked her to go see Paul McCartney...and paid for the tickets himself. I won't tell you what they cost.

It was at that point we parents introduced ourselves. The friend I was talking to yesterday is Keenan's dad. They actually had begun planning the date 6 months earlier, and Dana and I met the father last spring at a track meet our kids were running in. He had walked right up to us and Dana said immediately, "You must be Keenan's dad." He was a jubilant bundle of generous energy, and we hit it off at once. From then until now we've discovered our differences in style, interests, and approaches to things, but the whole bunch of us have stuck with it. It's something else I'm proud of because, in my experience, parents of your children's friends don't usually want you this far inside each other's homes. But a reason for our particular intimacy has recently emerged.

Last Thanksgiving, Keenan's dad was dropping him off at our house for an evening and lingered with us in the kitchen. He had a proposal. His work at the University takes him to the college's facilities, which these days reside around the globe. (We won't discuss the politicoeconomics of that situation just now.) He was going to have to be in Pau, France, for 75 days and he was taking the family with him. They wanted to invite Ilona to go along. Dana and I couldn't even get our heads around that, much less give a decision. For the next month we just staggered around dazed, but near Christmas he said we probably ought to come up with an answer because passport and plane ticket need to be addressed.

In the couple months since, I think we've pulled ourselves together and gotten something of a plan together. Obviously the main difficulties are Dana and I never have been to Europe, Ilona's had merely a year and a half of French, and she's only 14. If she were 17 I don't think we'd be quite so worried. Two and a half months is a long time. And does anybody know another family this well? They've rented a house, where Ilona will have her own room, and are arranging with the school in Pau for the young people to attend. We've met with the administration of Athens High to agree on a plan whereby their records can only benefit from the experience. Of course I still can't imagine what it would have been like for me to be immersed in another country and language so far from home. But increasingly we are trusting this incredible opportunity and contributing to its happening. They go next month.

Well...April in Paris. Or at least in the French countryside, with the Pyrenees as a backdrop. A dangerous time in the world? Bird flu, the world of Islam in an uproar, United States people not necessarily the good guys anymore. Yes, we're going to worry everyday, and we'll Instant Message and webcam and telephone all the time. But just maybe this relationship and these young people and a time in beloved France will help us all just a little bit. Perhaps in this very young love is the seed of a tiny part of a new era on this earth for which we all pray.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Young Love: Alone In Spain

The lovers last summer, together in Kinzua, Pennsylvania. Posted by Picasa

There's no need to discuss the principles of koan study;
just listen carefully
to the wind outside
the pines and cedars.


Someone else looked at the sky
with the same rapture
when the moon
crossed the dawn.

---Izumi Shikibu

What silence can there be,
What lack of sound compare
to a snowfall from dark air
falling quietly to sea?

---H. D. Eshleman

Yesterday a letter arrived from Espana. It is from a university student who has become very dear to our family these past several months. She is my son's young lady, finishing her advanced degree in Pamplona. He remains here, helping to manage his business. They both are 22.

How well I remember separation at 22. I was at Harvard and she was in Maine, not so far apart as Jeroch and Karen (pronounced KARR-in, as they do in Norway---although few in her life have learned to say it that way). There was a 4-lane highway a few miles outside Cambridge that went right up there. Maybe that made it worse. I only had a bicycle though. Some nights I used to ride it all the way out to that road, and just stand on an overpass, looking North...howling at the moon.

Perhaps Jeroch is a better man than I was. I hope so. A father hopes that for his son. After a month apart, he still appears with a ready smile and his customary hug of encouragement. He asks how we're doing, and he wants to know. He listens intently to any troubles. I have to press him for news of his heart. But he tells us cheerfully of emails and phone calls.

It was just a phone booth for me. One of those old kind you got in and closed the folding door. Encased in a standup coffin with a pocketful of change. The operator would interrupt: she wanted more money. I would plead for just a few more seconds to say goodbye. Fortunately, in New England in the early '60s, they were merciful. Ma Bell we used to nickname the company.

The computer cafe in Pamplona costs money though. I don't know what arrangement they have for long international telephoning. With all the possibilities of Instant Message these days, I'm sure they could work something out...even with a webcam. But not at the cafe I guess. So they make do...and write and phone a lot. And count the days. "I am almost into February," she was writing at the end of January, "and February is the shortest month of the year."

One's heart surely is tested and strengthened in these times apart. It doesn't matter if you're not as young as these two. When Dana and I were courting, we both had jobs and cars but 400 miles of separation. We chose a location on the map halfway and used to meet there. What passion when we'd touch! It's good to remember that, revitalizing like a spring fountain.

Karen is living with a Spanish family, learning the language better and personally, and much about cooking their way. She loves to travel and explore, and so whatever time she can spare from her "pretty tough" courses she's out "into the countryside and the mountains." There's a monastery "built into a mountainside in the 8th century" and El Castillo de Loarre, which she says may be the best preserved Romanic castle in the world.

And then there is Pamplona itself. "I am in love," she writes. "My window overlooks a huge park, with cathedral towers peeking out behind, and mountains peeking out from behind them. There is a bird sanctuary that is a minute (on foot) away---peacocks and black swans, even roosters---and Giant Sequoyas tower over the rest of the park's canopy. The buildings downtown are beautifully old and worn, with flowers draped off of balconies. The streets are winding and cobblestoned, too narrow for cars (at least the American kind). The coffee is strong, the food is fresh, and the people are warm. I feel safe here, even alone at night." At that point her letter drifts a few sentences into thoughts of Jeroch and missing him...and vivid dreams she has, and how she loves those times of aloneness. Oh, the bittersweet hours. "My blankets are so soft, and the lights from the park cast beautiful shadows that dance around my room at night."

Isn't that lovely, and isn't she sweet to write so gently? When you miss a loved one, any touch from the familiar back around him eases the longing. It intensifies the moments that can be spared in remembering and, perhaps with moist eyes, hugging oneself...or a suddenly very personal pillow. Writing to us touches him too. We stand as a family, looking her way, and awaiting her return. We too are in growing health to be near their young love.