Friday, February 19, 2016

“If Sand Can Glow in the Dark”

Corpse in street of Nagasaki, the day after the atomic bombing
Photo by Yosuke Yamaha
August 10, 1945

We were about ready to get started with our book group when the doorbell rang again.  “Pardon me,” I told the others, and hurried to the door.  When I opened it, I stood there for a minute, unable to recognize the person standing there.

“Well, aren’t you going to let me in?” came a plaintive voice.

“Liz!” I exclaimed.  “I couldn’t figure out who you were!  What’s with the dark glasses and the head scarf and turned-up collar?  Are you on the lam from the cops?”

“It’s not funny,” she said, as I took her coat and hung it up.  “How would you feel if you were a Republican nowadays?”

“Oh Liz,” I said, giving her a quick hug.  “Come on in.  It’s not your fault.  Nobody is blaming you for all the vile things your candidates in the presidential debates are spouting.”

She stepped into the living room as tentatively as a kid dipping a toe in a lake in December.  But she brightened up when the other women greeted her with a chorus of “So glad you could make it!” and other cheerful welcomes.  

“Thank you all so much,” she said with relief.  “I was afraid I was going to be a pariah.”

“I know things have really been going downhill,” I said, “but has something pushed you past the tipping point?”

“I guess you haven’t seen the news this morning,” Liz said.  “The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks all these white supremacists and other hate groups.  They’ve been doing it for years now.  This morning they released a report linking the extreme anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric pouring out of our GOP primary debates with attacks on Muslims and a major growth spurt among hate groups.  God, I’m so embarrassed.”

“You shouldn’t take it personally,” said Lynn gently.   “We know what kind of person you are.  When Donald Trump says that people coming here from Mexico are basically drug dealers and criminals and rapists, we know you feel the same way we do--that Trump’s claim is a hateful, despicable, racist lie.  And when he says he would bar all Muslim foreigners from entering the United States, we know you’re as appalled as any other decent person.”

“I appreciate your support so much,” said Liz miserably.  “But after he said those things, plus the insults and bullying and boasting and all kinds of crude sexist comments about Carly Fiorina’s face and blood coming out of Megyn Kelly’s ‘wherever’--what happened?  He went straight to the top of the party’s polls.  I couldn’t believe it.  I kept asking myself, ‘What’s that say about the GOP I’ve belonged to for over twenty-five years?’”    

“I feel for you,” said Nora.  “When Marco Rubio got all hysterical claiming that Obama was dividing the country because the president went to a mosque in Baltimore and talked about inclusion, I thought the top of my head would blow off.  Obama tries to pull people together and Rubio accuses him of trying to divide us.  That’s grotesque.  It's Orwellian doublespeak if I’ve ever heard it.  No offense, Liz,”  she added quickly.

“I have to say that when the Republican candidates tried to outdo each other on how they would torture suspected terrorists, I couldn’t help but think of you.  In a sympathetic way,” Ann added as Liz flinched.

“I did too,” I admitted.  “When Trump said ‘I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,’ and Chris Christie said waterboarding isn’t torture and he would use it, and Marco Rubio threw in that he’d ‘haul captured terrorists to Guantánamo Bay’ and ‘find out everything they know,’ I just had to turn off my TV in disgust.  I said to myself, ‘I hope Liz isn’t watching’.”

“Thanks, Patty,” Liz murmured.  “Unfortunately, I was.”

“I guess I bottomed out when Ted Cruz gave his plan for fighting the Islamic State," said Ruth.  ‘We will utterly destroy them.  We will carpet bomb them into oblivion,’ he said.  Doesn’t he understand that he’s talking about wiping out whole cities of men, women, and children?  Or doesn’t he even care?  I kept thinking, ‘Poor Liz.  How can she handle being associated with men like these?’”

“Of course he understands!” said Lynn.  “After Trump said that to fight terrorism you need to take out their families--and he said it three times, just for emphasis--it was like they were in a contest to see who could be the most bloodthirsty.”

“Well in that case, Cruz was the winner,” said Nora.  “He got as extreme as you can get when he talked about going nuclear, and gloated about it.  Remember when he said, ‘I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.’  This is the favorite candidate of evangelical Christians, mind you, bragging about his eagerness to obliterate whole populations with atomic bombs.  These guys don’t seem to have any boundaries.  I don’t mind telling you, they scare the hell out of me.  I shudder to think of one of them actually becoming president.  I can’t imagine being in your place, Liz.”   

Liz bowed her head.  “A huge chunk of the people in my party are eating this stuff up.  It just floors me,” she confessed.  “Where are the normal, sensible people that made me a Republican in the first place?  It’s as if I walked out of my childhood home and wandered into a facility for the criminally insane.  I feel so guilty.”

“You haven’t done anything wrong, Liz,” said Nora kindly.

“Oh, I should have spoken out, I know it.  But I kept telling myself, who would listen to me?  I’m a nobody.”

“Nonsense,” said Dorothy firmly.  “If there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s that we’re each a somebody, not a nobody.  You didn’t create this mess, but you’re caught up in it.  We all sympathize with the situation you’re in.  But it’s time to stop feeling sorry for yourself and decide what you’re going to do about it.”

© Tony Russell, 2016

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

"It Really Is Not a Big Deal"

Photo by Eugen Nosko
from Wkimedia Commons

Four of us got there early for choir practice--Shirley, Mabel, Serena, and myself--and while we were waiting we fell to griping about our husbands, something that’s been known to happen when a group of women get together.

“I could just strangle Andy,” Shirley said.  “His blood pressure keeps going up and up.  It was 165 over something last month, and the doctor told him he really needed to lose weight, change his diet, and get some exercise.  I’m scared to death he’s going to have a heart attack.  But Andy just shrugs it off.  He says your blood pressure is either going up or down at any point in time, so it's really not a big deal.”

“Huh,” said Mable.  “You know what?  Rodney told me almost exactly the same thing when I got after him about his weight.  He waved it off.  Claimed your weight is always either going up or down at any point in time, so it really isn’t a big deal.  When I mentioned that his only seems to go one direction--up--he just repeated himself and heaped some more mashed potatoes and gravy on his plate.”

“Gee, that’s funny,” said Serena.  “Lou’s cholesterol has climbed up over 240, and our doctor wanted to put him on some medication and an exercise program.  But Lou brushed him off.  He said your cholesterol is always going either up or down, so it’s not really that big a deal.  I told Lou that when it gets up as high as his is, it’s definitely a big deal, but he just sat there watching that TV.  I’m not sure he even heard me.”  

“Hmm.  You know what?  I’ve been getting that same excuse from Ace,” I volunteered.  “He’s been dragging around, having headaches, and losing weight, but he won’t do anything about it.  His blood sugar level was 190 when we checked it yesterday.  I’m afraid he’s going to have foot problems or go blind if he doesn’t start taking care of himself, but he just pretends nothing's wrong.  Where are they getting all this nonsense?”

“I came right out and asked Lou,” said Donna, “He’s been following the presidential primaries really closely.  And it turns out that when Dr. Carson gets asked about global warming--the way the planet keeps getting hotter and hotter--he just says....”

I guess the light went on for all of us simultaneously.  Before she could finish her sentence, we all chimed in:  "... the temperature's either going up or down at any point in time, so it really is not a big deal."

© Tony Russell, 2016

Monday, June 29, 2015

Golden Calf, Bronze Bull

Arturo Di Modica, Charging Bull
Photo by Cap'n Surly, via Creative Commons

When the people had lost their way, their leaders called on them to rise up early and make their way to Wall Street, bearing burnt sacrifices, and to lay their communion offerings at the hooves of the bronze bull erected there.  

They invited the people to eat and drink and indulge in revelry, at their corporate sponsors’ expense.  Men and women alike, giddy with visions of wealth and domination, crowded around to stroke the bull’s gleaming scrotum, all the while giggling and joking drunkenly.  “This is your god, who brought you up out of the wilderness,” their leaders told them.  “Let the good times roll!” 

Then the Lord said to Francis, “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people.  They steal from their brethren and plunder my creation, then call themselves creators of wealth.  They treat the world I have given them as their private preserve, made for those with the quickest hands to grab the most for themselves.”    

“They have turned away from what I commanded them, and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a bull. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘The market is our god, and the bronze bull is his image.  He is the pure energy of greed run free, able to trample all in his path.  The market is the answer to all questions, the solution to all problems, the measure of all things.  All power and praise be to the market!’”

“The smoke from their sacrifices, in exhaust fumes and emissions from belching smokestacks, has reached even heaven,” said the Lord.  “Now leave me alone, so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.  Let the seas rise and flood their coasts, droughts scorch their crops, fires turn their forests to ashes, heat waves fell them in their cities and fields, and violent storms flatten their houses and business places.  Let them become nations of helpless wanderers, with no place to lay their head and call home.” 
But Francis sought the favor of the Lord, and tried to avert his wrath.  “Turn away from your fierce anger,” he pleaded.  “Relent, and do not bring such disasters on your people.”

The Lord heard Francis’s plea, and said, “I shall stay the full force of my righteous anger for a spell.  You have but a brief moment in time; let us see whether you can recall the people from their idolatry and blasphemy.”
Francis turned and hurried down the mountain, with the text of an encyclical in his hands, pages inscribed on both sides, front and back.  He spoke to the people, trying to summon them back to the God who had given them the land and the sea and the air they had fouled and despoiled.  He thundered against the worship of money and markets.  He shone the light of truth on an economy that widens inequality and tosses aside billions of people like soiled disposable diapers.  “Such an economy kills,” he proclaimed.  “The culture of prosperity deadens us.”  

And Francis warned the idol-worshippers that a system with a selfish ideal as its foundation is like a house built over a worked-out mine shaft.  “Those who dwell therein are poised above the abyss,” he cried.  “They are doomed to indifference.  They turn deaf ears to the cries of the poor and lose their ability to weep for other people’s pain.”

But the leaders at the church of avarice would not be swayed.  They understood the mesmerizing power of bombast joined with paranoia, so they took to their iPads and talk shows, calling Francis “a meddlesome egoist and an ideologue,” who dared to speak out against the god they had forged.  “He does not preach the true religion,” they complained.  “He is an adherent of a modern pagan green religion.”  “His rantings are nothing more than Marxism, nothing more than communism.”

The people listened and pondered these things, while God waited and looked on.  

© Tony Russell, 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

“So What’s Your Question, Larry?”

Executioners control panel for lethal injection
Photo by David from Washington, DC
Wikimedia Commons


Reporter #1: Governor, Nebraska is the latest state to repeal capital punishment, now that the legislature has overridden your veto.  You’ve said you’re still going to go ahead and execute the ten people already on death row here.  None of the other eighteen states that have done away with capital punishment have executed anyone after their new law passed.  Why are you so hellbent on executing people? 

Governor: Look at it this way, Chet: if the state’s chief executive can’t execute, what’s the point?  

Reporter #2: Since 1973, there have been 143 prisoners on death row in the U.S. who were found to be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.  Doesn’t that make you just a little uneasy?

Governor: Not at all, Danny.  I don’t second guess the justice system--just the legislature.  

Reporter #2: But obviously people who do second guess the justice system have found a lot of mistakes and wrongful convictions.

Governor: So be it.  Nobody likes a Monday-morning quarterback.

Reporter #3:  Almost all the prisoners on death row, here and around the country, are poor, uneducated, black, Hispanic, or some combination of those things, Governor.  Are you comfortable with the way income, education, and race seem to affect who gets the death penalty?

Governor: Not as long as I’m rich, educated, white, and a home-grown English speaker, Marcia.  (Has a second thought)  Don’t quote me on that.

Reporter #4: Governor, how do you explain all these legislators who voted to do away with the death penalty?  Most of them are well-off, educated, white, English-speaking conservatives, just like yourself.  But they opposed you on this capital punishment thing. They argued that the death penalty is horribly expensive, is ineffective as a deterrent, puts the lives of innocent people at risk, and gives government too much unnecessary power.

Governor: What you have to understand, Glen, is that we conservatives say we don’t like government spending, but the fact is we’ll pour money into things that matter.  (Delivers standard applause line)  And what matters the most is security: protecting the people of this great state and country from murderers at home and abroad.    

Reporter #3: But if you execute these ten people--or even one of them, as far as that goes--doesn’t that make you one of those murderers we need to protect ourselves against?

Governor: (Exasperated) Where do you people come up with ideas like that?  Executions aren’t murders, Marcia.  The first is legal and good, the other is illegal and evil.

Reporter #3: But as I understand it, Governor, the legislature just decided executions are not legal and not good.

Governor: That may be their opinion going forward, but it’s not retroactive.  

Reporter #2: Still, doesn’t it make sense that you’d honor the spirit of their decision?

Governor: They have their spirit; I have mine.  And as long as I’m the governor, mine’s the one that counts.  (Glances at his watch)  Okay, we’ve got time for one more question.  (Points to a reporter who has his hand up)  Larry?

Reporter #5: Speaking of spirit, Governor, you’re a Roman Catholic.  (Consults his notes)  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed the death penalty for the last 38 years, saying that we can’t defend life by taking life.  The Catholic bishops here in Nebraska have issued a joint statement calling for the end of capital punishment.   And Pope Francis called on all men and women of good will to help abolish the death penalty in all of its forms.

Governor: So what’s your question, Larry?

© Tony Russell, 2015

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mend Thine Every Flaw

Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello
Photo by Waldo Jaquith
from Wikimedia Commons

The naturalization ceremony at Monticello each 4th of July, where people who have come to the U.S. from all over the world stand and take the oath of citizenship, is a stirring event.  Bob thought it would be a feel-good story for these troubled times, and sent me to do a feature this year.  “Be sure and get some interviews,” he reminded me as I was heading out the door.  “First-hand accounts are what make history come alive.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” I told him.  “Patriotic music, a celebration of democracy in action, and heartwarming stories.  I could write this in my sleep.”

“Ah, so that’s why your stories usually sound the way they do,” he said.

“Glad you like them,” I said.  “I’ll try to meet my usual standard.”  He said something in reply, but it was muffled by the loud slam of the door behind me.  It must have been caught by the wind. 

The mood at Monticello was festive and the ceremony moving.  After the speakers, the administration of the oath, and the rest of the formal agenda, the band began playing, kids were rolling hoops and running around happily, and I had a couple of ice cream cones to tide me over until lunch.  Then I walked around looking for newly-minted citizens to talk with, humming along as the band gave a nice rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law! 

The first new citizen I approached turned out to be from Chile.  “Congratulations!” I told her, shaking her hand.  “How long have you lived in this country?”

“I came with my mother in the late 1970s when I was just a young girl,” she said. “It took me a long while, but I finally decided to become a citizen here.”  

“Just you and your mother?” I said. “What about the rest of your family.”

She looked a bit awkward.  “Maybe you remember the years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Well,” she explained, “when the CIA engineered a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Allende, General Pinochet’s men herded my father and twelve-year-old brother into the national stadium, along with hundreds of others, where they were both tortured and killed.”  She began to tear up at the memory.

What can you say after something like that?  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, stunned.  “Uh, well, congratulations again on your naturalization.  Best of luck to you.”  And I quickly went looking for someone else to interview.

The next new citizen I approached told me he was from Guatemala, and was working as an orderly in a local hospital.  “Actually, I was a doctor specializing in rural medicine back home,” he said, “but after death squads murdered four of my colleagues at night in front of their families, I fled for my life.”

“It’s a shame your country has such a history of unrest, dictatorships, and violence,” I said.  “It must be a relief to become part of a country like ours with its long tradition of democracy and freedom.”

He nodded.  “It’s bittersweet,” he said.  “It was the stability in this country that finally led me to apply for citizenship.  But at the same time, enjoying that safety here is painful because it was the United States that  organized the overthrow of our peaceful, democratically-elected government and replaced it with dictators who carried out decades of genocide.”  He paused, his eyes down, and then looked up at me.  “The U.S. trained the death squads and early on gave them a list of names of doctors, journalists, teachers, community activists, labor organizers, and student leaders to ‘neutralize’,” he said quietly.

“Oh.  I didn’t realize.  I ... uh .... ”

“I understand,” he said, his voice a little hoarse.  “Most people here seem completely unaware of these things.”

“Right,” I said, anxious to get out of this situation.  “Listen, it’s been great talking with you.  Good luck.”

The band was now playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and the words of the song ran through my mind as I hurriedly walked away.

Our father's God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

Maybe Latin America was the problem, I reflected.  Then I noticed what appeared to be a Middle Eastern woman standing alone.  I introduced myself, and asked where she was from originally.

“Iran,” she said, and nothing more.  She seemed wary, so I tried to put her at ease.  “I’m a newspaper reporter doing a human interest story on new citizens naturalized today,” I said.  “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“I suppose it’s okay.”

“Great.  Can you tell me how does it feel to become a citizen in a free and democratic country like ours?”

“Freedom and democracy are wonderful things,” she said.  

After a pause she added, “My grandmother would tell me, when she was alive, about how proud Iranians were when we elected Mohammed Mossadegh Prime Minister in a free, fair, and open vote.  But when Mossadegh decided to cancel the British monopoly control of Iranian oil and nationalize the oil company, Britain and the U.S. decided he had to go.  The CIA was used to overthrow him.   It took two years.  They bribed newspaper editors, created a fake communist party, organized and financed opposition, and then orchestrated a coup that put the Shah in power.   Years of dictatorship followed, with unspeakable horrors.  Over 3,000 people were killed by the Shah’s regime.  My grandfather’s brother was tortured and killed by the Shah’s secret police.”

“You know,” I said, shaking my head, “you may find this hard to believe, but three people now, from three different countries, have just told me basically the same story.”  

She gave me a hard stare.  “I don’t find it hard to believe at all,” she said.  “Don’t you know your own history?  We in Iran were the original success story for the CIA’s overthrow of governments the U.S. wanted to replace.  The coup in Iran in 1953, and the dictatorship that was installed in its place, became the prototype for U.S. foreign interventions all around the globe.    There have been at least eighty coups organized against foreign governments by the U.S. since then.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said.  

“Would anyone joke about such a thing?” she said.  “And it’s certainly not a joke to all the people who have suffered the consequences--who have seen their own freedoms and dreams destroyed.”

“What countries are you talking about?” I asked.

“There have been so many I don’t know if I can remember them all,” she said.  “After Iran, there was the overthrow of President Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.  The U.S. called that coup ‘Operation PRSUCCESS.‘  About 200,000 people--mostly peasants--were killed by the U.S.-backed security forces over the years.  Then came the coup in Thailand in 1957, and the one in Laos between 1958 and 1960.  Of course there was the coup in the Congo in 1960, after the Belgian Congo finally gained its independence.  Remember Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister who was imprisoned and executed?”

“Never heard of him,” I said.  “These things all took place before I was even born.”

“So you’re only aware of history that occurred during your lifetime?” she asked somewhat sharply.

“Of course not,” I said, a bit ruffled.  “I’ve heard of the American Revolution and the Civil War and the First World War and the Korean War ....  wait, I’ve forgotten some.  The War of 1812, the Spanish-American War....”

“That’s what history is for you?” she asked, eyebrows raised.  “A series of wars the U.S. has fought?”

Time to switch the subject.  “No, no,” I said.  “What I meant was that those coups you mentioned were a part of the past.  We’ve moved on from there.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said--a phrase which sounded odd when spoken with her accent.  “The pattern of coups organized by the U.S. has continued through your own lifetime and right up to the present day.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, “but that’s ridiculous.  I’m a newspaper reporter.  If the United States was routinely undermining democratic governments and replacing them with dictatorships, don’t you think I’d be aware of it?”

She stared at me for a moment, then said, “Well, are you?”  She waited, but I didn’t answer.  

“Not all of these countries were democracies, but all of them were the victims of U.S.-backed coups,” she said, and began to recite:  “Turkey in 1960, 1971, and 1980; Ecuador in 1961 and 1963; South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina, all in 1963; Honduras, also 1963 and then again in 2009; Iraq in 1963 and 2003; the overthrow of President Goulart in Brazil in 1964; Bolivia three times, including 1964, 1971 and 1980.  In 1965, the U.S. gave the Indonesian army the names of 5,000 Communists, who were hunted down and killed as part of the quarter of a million Indonesians slaughtered by the military.  The U.S. orchestrated the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966; a coup in Greece in 1967; the overthrow of President Arias in Panama in 1968 after he demanded the return of the Canal Zone to Panamanian jurisdiction, and then again in 1989 with the replacement of Manuel Noriega; the removal of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia in 1970; the overthrow of President Allende of Chile in 1973; Bangladesh in 1975; ‘Operation Fair Play,’ the military coup that removed Prime Minister Bhutto of Pakistan in 1977; the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983; Mauritania and Guinea in 1984;  Burkina Faso in 1987; Paraguay in 1989; Haiti in 1991 and again in 2004; Russia in 1993; Uganda in 1996; and Libya in 2011.”

“Huh,” I thought to myself.  “Looks as if it’s not just Latin America.  She’s talking about countries in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, even Europe.”  

But what I said was, “Wow, it’s amazing you can rattle off a list that long, with all those names and dates.” 

“Victims tend to have longer memories than aggressors,” she answered.  “And it helps that I’m a historian.”

“Well, thanks for your time,” I said, waving goodbye.  None of what I had so far was usable; I needed to find some folks with more upbeat stories before everybody headed home.  I had a little time yet, I thought, because I could hear the strains of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting across the mountaintop:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, 
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: 
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, 
While God is marching on.

One thing all those songs agreed on, I noticed: God seemed to be with our country on its mission.  Or were we with Him?  Regardless, I was eager to gather a few of the right kind of interviews before I headed home and wrote my story while I was taking a nap.

© Tony Russell, 2014

Note:  The list of coups rattled off by the woman from Iran in the column is a much-modified version of a list contained in an AlterNet article by Nicolas J.S. Davies, which itself draws on William Blum's book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Supreme Faith

“Somebody finally moved into that house two doors down--the one that’s been empty for almost a year,” Patty said while we were eating dinner.

“Thank goodness,” I said.  “It’s about time.  Did you meet them?”

“No, all I saw were the movers.  They have a strange assortment of furniture, though.  A lot of file cabinets, computer equipment, printers, and that kind of thing.  No beds or dining room sets or couches or end tables.”

“Huh,” I said, “that’s odd.  This neighborhood is zoned for residential use only.  Maybe one of them works at home, and the rest of their stuff is coming in another moving van.”

Patty looked a little doubtful.  “Could be, I guess,” she said.  “Anyway, I baked a gooseberry pie to welcome them.  Why don’t you take it over after supper and introduce yourself?  Maybe you can find out more about them.”

So after supper Patty set the pie in a little cardboard box, and I walked up to the new neighbor’s door, with the scent of warm gooseberries and cinnamon rising from the box in my hands.  My mouth was watering, even though she’d baked two, and I had finished off half of ours for dessert.

I managed to press the doorbell with my elbow, and after a small delay a file cabinet opened the door.  “Oh, hi,” I said.  “We live up the street and just wanted to say hello and welcome you to the neighborhood.  My wife Patty sent along this pie for you.”

“Why thanks so much!  We appreciate the thoughtfulness,” said the file cabinet, its top drawer sliding back and forth like a jaw opening and closing.  “It smells wonderful.  I’m sure the family will love it.”

“How big is your family, if you don’t mind my asking?” 

“We’re a family of fifteen at the moment,” it said.  “I’m the parent company, with fourteen subsidiaries.  But I’m buying, selling, merging, and wiping out subsidiaries all the time, so the number of family members varies from year to year.”

“You buy new family members?”

“Our acquisition department is always looking for attractive, undervalued companies out there.”

“And you kill off some of the family members?” I asked. 

“When I’ve stripped them of their assets, or they’re not performing up to expectations,” it said.

“Hmm.  Kevin didn’t make the honor role this last grading period,” I said, making a chopping motion with my hand, and we both laughed.

“Say, while you’re here, could you tell me where the nearest Episcopal Church is?” it asked.  “I never miss a Sunday service.”

“You’re an Episcopalian?”   

“Born and raised,” it said proudly.  “Figuratively speaking.  Or maybe literally.  I'm not sure how far the Court's rulings extend.”

“I have to confess that I didn’t know that for-profit corporations had a faith or religious beliefs,” I said.  

“No need to apologize,” said the file cabinet.  “It takes time.  Why, even the Supreme Court didn’t notice it until this week.  But their Hobby Lobby decision put religion in the heart of corporations where it belongs.” 

“I’m a little vague on that ruling,” I said.  “I heard ‘Hobby Lobby’ mentioned, and I thought maybe it was a doll company or something.”

“Heavens no,” it said.  “The Court ruled, in its usual 5-4 wisdom, that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs, except for tax laws.”

“Holy cow!  That’s really a sweeping decision,” I marveled.  “Is everybody in your corporation Episcopalian then?”

“Lord no,” it laughed.  “We’re an international firm.  We have Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and a boatload of Catholics and Baptists, as well as Mormons, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, you name it.”

“So how do you go about making decisions based on your faith when the people in your corporation come from such a variety of religious traditions?” I asked.

It waved a drawer dismissively.  “Our employees’ faith isn’t a factor,” it said.  “The corporate conscience is what matters.  Our Board of Directors and our legal department will designate our articles of faith on a case-by-case basis.”

“I remember having to memorize Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ when I was in grade school,’ I said slowly.  “It ended ‘Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree’.  Now it turns out that the Supreme Court can make people out of corporations and then endow them with souls and consciences.  And I thought all this time you just existed to make money.”

“You’re forgiven,” it said, swaying its second drawer from side to side in what I took to be a sign of benediction. “And thanks for the pie.”
© Tony Russell, 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014

Face-off at the DMV

I took Kevin to the DMV yesterday to get his learners permit.  I’d planned on sleeping in, but Patty roused us at 7.  “It could take most of the morning,” she said, “and you’ll never get the grass cut if you sleep in.”  She seemed to believe that was a negative.

We got there early, before the doors opened, but two dozen people were already ahead of us.  We slowly worked our way toward the front of the line, and were almost there by 10 am.  I’d read the sports section of the paper twice, and Kevin stayed busy texting on his phone.  But then things took an odd turn.  

The lady in front of us had been dragging a box full of files behind her as she moved along, although I couldn’t see a strap or rope attached to it.  When she finished at the counter and started to walk away, I yelled after her, “Ma’am, you’ve forgotten your files!”

She turned and glanced at the box, looking puzzled.  “You’re mistaken,” she said.  “That’s not mine.”  And she left.

“Huh,” I said.  “Surely that wasn’t moving itself.”  And just at that instant, the file box gave a lurch and leaped to the counter, while Kevin and I stared, astonished.  The clerk, however--who must have seen almost everything by now--simply asked, “Do you have your birth certificate?” in a bored tone.

“Uh, I have this charter of incorporation,” said a muffled voice, as the box ejected a thick file.  

The clerk barely glanced at it.  “We require an official, certified birth certificate,” she said, handing it back.  She stared past it to us. “Next.”

Kevin and I started to step forward, but the file box didn’t give up that easily.  “According to the Supreme Court,” it said, “a corporation is legally a person.  Do I need to get my lawyers?”

She glared at it and waved a supervisor over.  He pulled her aside, and the two of them huddled for a heated conversation.  We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she was clearly agitated, while the supervisor seemed to be trying to explain some technicalities to her.

Kevin leaned close to me and whispered, “Why does it need a driver’s license anyway?”

“It drives the economy,” I whispered back.  “And the nation’s political agenda.  I don’t know how it’s been managing this long without a license.  It’s lucky it didn’t get pulled over.”

“Oh, now I get it.  I see what you’re saying,” he said.  “It drives global warming, too.  All kinds of things, I bet.  I wonder what kind of drivers exam it has to pass.  You wouldn’t think they’d give it the same test the rest of us take.”

“Maybe it gets a commercial license,” I offered.

Just then the clerk returned to the counter, and she was clearly in a bad mood.  “We have to accept your charter of incorporation as a form of birth certificate,” she told it reluctantly.  “Let’s get the rest of the required information.  What were your parents’ names?”

It flipped to the back of the charter and waved a list of corporate officers.

“All of these people are your parents?” she said incredulously, as if she were dealing with some alien life form. 

“Just list the first two,” it said curtly.

“Charles and David?  But they’re brothers!”

“What’s the difference?” it said, obviously irritated.  “Take it up with the Court.”

She went down the page.  “What’s your date of birth?”

It flipped to another page.  “Right here:  Conglomerate.  Founded in 1940.”

“Height and weight?  What color are your eyes?”

It glared at her.  “I’m a legal fiction.  I don’t have any real substance.  How can I have height and weight and eye coloration?”

“I can’t write down that you weigh zero pounds and have no eyes.  That means you’re too small to get behind the wheel and legally blind.”

“I don’t need to see where I’m going.  All I care about is the bottom line.  Everything else is beside the point.”

“We can’t turn somebody with no vision and no conscience loose on the highway!” she exclaimed.  “That would be dangerous.  Irresponsible.  Criminal!”

“Look,” it said, “I’ve been cleared to manipulate the leadership of the entire country, steer the economy, handle defense contracts for trillions of dollars of military hardware, market billions of pounds of pesticides, clear forests for strip malls, manufacture and sell drugs, and frack for oil in the middle of your water supply.  And you’re going to give me grief over a driver’s license?  I don’t think so.”

“Think what you want,” snorted the clerk, “but you’re not getting a driver’s license as long as I’m standing here.”

And then one of those unexpected magic moments occurred.  While the file folder threw a tizzy and blew out the door, loose papers flying like trash in a windstorm, everyone in the office began clapping, and together we let out a cheer for an ordinary clerk in the DMV, who had more gumption and common sense than the majority of the justices on our country’s highest court.

© Tony Russell, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Argo Search Your Conscience

For the last couple of years, we’ve gotten together with our neighbors Don and Ellen once a month to watch a movie together.  We alternate: one month at our house, the next month at theirs, with the host couple picking the film.  It was all Patty’s idea; she refers to it as “double date night,” which gives you some idea of what a wild night life we lead.

This month was at our house, and we’d picked Argo, the 2012 film about a scheme to free six Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.  The film is based on a real event, with a CIA “extractor”--played by Ben Affleck--who comes up with the crazy idea of getting the six out of Iran by pretending they’re Canadians scouting out locations for a science fiction film in the Iranian desert.

The film’s a thriller, and when it was over, we sat there for a minute, in that  post-movie limbo where you transition back into the reality around you.  Ellen was the first to come out of movie-world.  “I don’t get it,” she said.

“What?  What don’t you get?” asked Don.

“Well, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” she said.

I was finishing off the half-popped kernels left in the popcorn bowl, but I looked up at her.  “Oh come on, Ellen,” I said.  “What’s so hard to figure out?  Ben Affleck gets a medal at the end.  He’s a hero.  He keeps his cool and rescues all six of these very frightened people when mobs of furious Iranians surround them and armed Iranian militants are everywhere.  It’s cowboys versus Indians, white hats versus black hats, good guys versus bad guys.  Ben Affleck is John Wayne.”

““But don’t you remember the opening minutes of the film?” she asked.

She caught me scraping out the last of the cheese dip with a nacho, and I waved the nacho at her until I could respond.  “I missed a few minutes there at the beginning.  I was out in the kitchen microwaving another bag of popcorn,” I told her.  “What about the opening?” 

“I think I see where she’s coming from,” said Patty thoughtfully.  “You only missed a couple of minutes, Ace, but that was where a narrator gave us the historical context for the Iran hostage crisis.  We never saw her, we just heard her voice.  She said that Iran had a democratically elected Prime Minister, but when he called for the nationalization of Iranian oil, the CIA and British M16 organized a military coup in 1953 that kicked him out and installed the Shah as a dictator.  The Shah paid back the favor by signing over 40% of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies.  The Shah’s regime was oppressive, brutal, and corrupt, which didn’t matter to the U.S. so long as he served our interests and our oil companies controlled their oil production.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Don.  “It’s coming back to me now.  The Islamic revolution took everybody by surprise.  Iranians rose up and booted out the Shah.  He was a tyrant that everybody hated, and only U.S. military and financial aid and a vicious secret police force kept him on the throne.  With the revolution, the Shah fled to the U.S., and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.  That’s the point where the movie switched to ‘live action,’ with the U.S. embassy being overrun.” 

“That’s where I came in,” I nodded.  “I’m amazed you guys paid any attention to all that historical stuff.  It wasn’t really important.  It was just a quick way of giving us background for the real story.  Pass me that bowl of mixed nuts, will you?”

“Why do you say the historical stuff wasn’t important?  It’s all the real story, isn’t it?” said Ellen.  “History doesn’t start or stop where we want it to.  It sounds to me, judging from the background stuff, as if we were the bad guys who were mostly responsible for the situation Ben Affleck and the embassy staff were in.  We bribed and coerced the Iranian army to get a democratically elected leader kicked out and thrown in jail, then underwrote the Shah, who had anybody he mistrusted tortured and shot.  He was our guy.  Most Iranians hated him, and we drove off with Iran’s oil.  If Iran had backed a military coup in the U.S., installed a friendly torturer as a dictator, and siphoned off billions of dollars worth of our assets, you don’t think people in the U.S. might feel a tad bit resentful?”

“But Ben Affleck didn’t hurt anybody,” I protested.  “And the people from our embassy he helped looked like nice people. They were terrified, and they had every reason to be.  They were surrounded by Iranians screaming for their blood and toting automatic weapons.” 

“You know, I think I remember reading somewhere that the Iranian revolution was non-violent originally,” said Don, his face scrunched up as he tried to grab something that had almost slipped away.  “I guess that got lost in the desire to settle old scores, or maybe to make sure the revolution wasn’t undermined by the people behind the Shah who were still around.”

We were all quiet for a minute.  “People like the CIA?  Like the U.S. manipulators of their government, operating out of our embassy?  Like Iranians who were secretly on our payroll?” Patty ventured.

“That would be my guess,” said Don.

“Do you remember that scene in the bazaar where the angry crowd is pressing in on the six Americans, and a gray-bearded man keeps yelling ‘The bullet that killed my son came from America!’ or something like that?” said Ellen.

I’d forgotten about that, but now that she mentioned it....

  “That could very well have been the reality,” said Ellen.  “Not just for him, but for thousands of other people.”

“It makes me think of those scenes of panicked embassy officials rushing to shred documents when Iranians were swarming over the compound’s walls,” said Patty.  

“That’s probably pretty standard operating procedure for embassies,” I pointed out.

“Especially if you have information in your files about who on your staff is actually CIA, who the Iranians are that are collaborating with you, and how Washington is involved in propping up the Shah’s regime and helping target people for the Shah to torture or murder,” said Ellen rather sharply.

“So are you claiming that the Iranian militants were the good guys and Ben Affleck was a bad guy?” I said indignantly.

Ellen looked frustrated.  “What Tony Mendez--the guy Ben Affleck played--did was brave, and he probably saved six people’s lives.  I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.”

“Well what are you saying?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, looking even more frustrated.  “Tony Mendez was part of the CIA, and the CIA did horrible things to Iran.  He probably didn’t do anything wrong personally, but the CIA and the U.S. government certainly did.  The same thing could be true for the six people who worked at the U.S. embassy.  They may not have done anything evil themselves, but the whole U.S. presence there was to sustain an evil.  So Mendez keeps these six U.S. citizens from being the victims of vengeance, and that’s great.  I always thought vengeance was ugly, and justice was beautiful.  But sometimes now I can’t tell them apart.  Where’s the justice here?”

“What do you mean ‘Where’s the justice?’” asked Don.

  “We never admitted any wrongdoing, never took any responsibility for the atrocities committed on our dime and on our behalf,” said Ellen.  “Why do we end up feeling so good about ourselves at the end of the movie?  Escaping vengeance is one thing; skipping out on responsibility is another.  The Iranians are closing in on Mendez and the six while the film is building to a climax, and there’s one hair-breadth escape after another.  Their airplane finally takes off, with armored vehicles in hot pursuit all the way down the runway, and we breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate.  But as they get away, it seems as if we all got away with something.”

“You know, now that you mention it, I’m thinking about that joke the movie guys, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who helped put together the fake movie scheme, kept coming up with:  ‘Argo f**k yourself.” said Don.  “In a way, that is the message.”

“Part of the problem is the power of stories, isn’t it?” said Ellen.  “We get more than two decades of sordid history as two minutes of dry facts.  Then we get two hours up-close of a daring rescue and the bravery and the overwhelming relief when they’re safe, all with real faces and visible emotions.  What if instead of this rescue, the story had been about that father whose son was murdered with an American bullet?  What if we’d seen all of that played out, and watched his family suffering?”

“Hey, look, we just came together to watch a movie and have a good time,” I complained.  “This is getting a little too deep for me.”

“Ace, sometimes I worry that you’ll drown in a puddle,” Patty said. 

© Tony Russell, 2014