On New Year's Eve, with my partner marooned in MA and I in NY, I accepted an invitation to dinner with some kind, smart, mostly Jewish, Upper West Side intellectuals. There was a smattering of public advocate lawyers, a distinguished bevy of PhDs in neurobiology, a Lutheran minister, a real estate something-or-other, all eating osso buco and downing quite considerable quantities of wine, as did I.
There was one bellicose fellow who opined that the worst thing that happened to the US was Abraham Lincoln and the civil war. We should have let "them" leave. Now it was our turn to take New England, New York, California and a handful of unspecified Midwest states, possibly including Iowa (though there was some debate about its worthiness) and become a part of Canada. How Canada would feel about this invasion was not addressed.
Perhaps the man was inebriated. Though I suspect he would have launched his silly proposal drunk or sober.
His secession scheme reminded me of the old saw I used to hear repeatedly. It was when I was running an organization that publicized the poisonous by-products of nuclear energy. Scarcely a day passed when someone didn't come up to me after a debate or lecture. Grinning as if they had just discovered white bread, pleased by their amazing, Einstein-like perspicacity, they would ask: Why not send the nation's nuclear waste to the sun?
I would patiently explain: Well, no, that won't work. There's the astronomical, utterly bankrupting expense. There's also the danger of spewing plutonium, strontium-90 and other unpleasant stuff into the planet's atmosphere. Hey, remember the Challenger?
The near-geniuses invariably responded in one of two ways. Oh, just kidding, heh-heh. Just my own private little joke. This might be followed by a friendly, placating touch on my sleeve and a quick verbal U-turn: Yeah, I guess all those solid-fuel rockets would require buckets of cash.
More typical was the second response: a quick physical retreat accompanied by angry mutterings.
In those anti-nuclear, community organizing days I often felt compassion for the proponents of sending-nuke-waste-to-the-sun. In my heart of hearts I knew they were in a terrible predicament. He (or she) could not tolerate a world in which there were tons of deadly poisonous radioactive waste piling up all over the country. Waste with nowhere to go. There had to be someplace to stash it.
Dammit, send it to the sun.
In the case of the secessionist I clamped my mouth shut and turned to the guest sitting to my right. He was a gentle, witty Lutheran minister. Within seconds, he and I had waged a high-stakes bet of 25 cents. His vote: Republicans would be out in 2008. My vote: not bloody likely -- unless something is done to protect us against the computer hacking and other skullduggery which ploughed both Al Gore and John Kerry into the oblivion of once-rans. (Mark Crispin Miller has described this skullduggery in exquisite detail in his new book, Fooled Again.)
The assembled guests now leapt into the issue of the NEXT PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION. I asked: What big, so-called, "Presidential timber" Democrat was there on the horizon that wasn't a Republican in disguise ready to waffle on the war? And -- I thought privately to myself -- waffle with all the bland banality of a Vichy bureaucrat signing the fiches that sent scores of French Jews to Auschwitz.
There was the brief conversational sashay into: What if Hillary runs? I ran against the already rising tide of we-may-have-to-hold-our-noses-and-vote-for-anything-but-the-Republicans. No, I would not vote for her under any circumstances, I said. Too corrupt, too right wing, too much in the pockets of big money and big corporations. Too enamored of the Apartheid Wall. Too ready to sell her body and soul on abortion, the minimum wage, the Indian Point nuclear reactor…
Twelve o'clock came and went. I slipped out into the night. The cool, misty air felt wonderfully fresh.
What astounds me is the notion that getting rid of President Bush and supplanting him with a Democrat -- any vaguely "centrist" Democrat -- will in any significant way solve the problem. Or, at least, solve the problem enough that we can go back to -- to what? To living our comfortable lives unpained by the slaughter in Iraq, unruffled by the devastations of global warming, unworried about torture in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air base, unbothered by the host of devastating problems filtering across the screens of our brains?
I stumble up against this quaint notion -- that Bush is the problem -- everywhere. Park Slope professors, Upper West Side photographers, funny writers, smart lawyers, brilliant researchers, wise social workers, caring physical therapists, imaginative architects, stolid doctors, adamant public health advocates -- all the professional, middle-class people I bump into in the course of my life echo this tired refrain. All people I like, respect, and with whom I often have great times.
Yes, the notion that Bush is the problem is very attractive. Otherwise we would have to define what the problem really is. Then matters would quickly get exceptionally complex. We might have to examine the fissures running deep into the core of our society. We might have to analyze the issue of the corporate culture and the devastation being wrecked on the 40 million Americans living below the poverty line. We might have to look at what it really means that as a nation, as a society we tolerate, we sit by placidly -- barely squeaking -- as the poison of depleted uranium is spread via US bullets and missiles throughout the "cradle of civilization" in Iraq. We might have to wonder what is our responsibility to the rest of the planet as we chomp through the forests of Brazil, gobble up the shrimps of Thailand and spew tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
We might have to look freshly and creatively at the matter of property, ownership, and tax reforms on behalf of the poor, not the rich. We might even revisit that great bug-a-boo Socialism.
Many of the let's-get-rid-of-Bush proponents, just like the secede-to-Canada bloke or the send-nuke-waste-to-the-sun advocates, when challenged, would agree that the problem was actually far more complex. More is necessary than the simple act of touching a screen or turning a toggle switch in 2008. Yet the persistence of the Bush-is-the-problem myth means the harder, extremely challenging work of rebuilding and reforming a society from the inside out and the ground-up gets postponed -- once again.
Of course I too want to get rid of Bush. But I hope 2006 brings a deeper analysis, as well as the requisite hard work meaningful changes will require.
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