Monday, June 15

Contemplating Patriotism

I don't really think of myself as a patriot in the way that many of those who serve this country do. But the definition of "patriot" is fairly broad and, therefore, forgiving. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "patriot" means "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests."

This is a big country and I've been privileged to see a lot of it. When I think of myself in the context of patriotism, I don't think of loving America, the physical country and its geography. While there is a whole bunch of it of which I'm extremely fond, there are parts I can do without.

But I love the general idea of the United States of America, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the efforts of those who first came to this country and those who carved out the idea of these United States of America and those who worked and died to make these United States of America a reality.

I think about this every once in a while when I'm in a place where a diversity of cultures and languages are co-existing, even collaborating, when there are no divides based on race, creed, or anything else. I love seeing people really behaving as though skin color doesn't matter; when that happens, I'm proud of what this country represents and can represent.

Heaven knows we are not remotely close to perfect, though I fear there are a few too many in various positions of power and influence who seem to think so. But even the challenge of those discussions and arguments reinforce the powerful opportunity for speech we have in this country.

A lot of this came home to me yesterday for a few reasons. First, I was reviewing the what happened on June 14 in history and learned that in 1777, Congress adopted the Stars & Stripes as the national flag. And June 14, 1877 was the first Flag Day and marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the national flag. I thought about what had had to happen to get to June 14, 1777 to be able to select a national flag and then what had transpired in the intervening 100 years before my country marked its first official Flag Day.

Second, I was following the story of Iranian election. The story is even more compelling today as I read and heard about the thousands of young people who ignored that they had been forbidden to gather and that through word-of-mouth they are planning to gather and protest again tomorrow. The government has, apparently, shut down cell phone access as well as online access, but the word is spreading and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked for an investigation into possible voter fraud, even after he certified the election results with what seemed like exceptional response. I am awed by the energy and passion of the Iranian people. I loved the sign that read, "I want my vote back." If only we could find a way to counteract the electoral numbness in this country; if only we could find a way to help the American people feel as though their votes actually matter.

Third, I went to the grocery store. That in itself isn't a particularly patriotic event, though I'm often acutely aware that as I stand in a aisle complaining that my brand of something seems to have been discontinued that I have a ridiculous amount of choice. What did inexplicably reduce me to tears as I wandered some of the aisles was a group of family members collecting goods for members of a Marine Expeditionary Force. I was moved by the number of people in the store who were, like me, looking first at the list on a piece of paper and then checking the aisles and shelves to get what they had said could be shipped. I'd set aside one of my recyclable bags so I could fill it with sunscreen, cough drops, lip balm, wet wipes, yo yos (they wanted fun stuff, too), and a bunch of other stuff somehow feeling that this contribution was paltry.

I'm not a fan of the Iraq War. While I think we did a good thing in toppling Saddam Hussein, I think we did a bad thing in not being prepared for such a quick turn of events and for certainly not being prepared for the condition of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. We seemed to make a lot of stupid and arrogant mistakes and have been paying for that hubris for the past 6 years. Even still, men and women are in Iraq for a reason and they are serving my country so that I can wander around a grocery story and buy whatever I want whenever I want. While there are an unconscionable number of people in this country who cannot do as I do, the fact is that there are opportunities and possibilities here that exist nowhere else and precisely because of those men and women who have served this country in a variety of ways.

And so, as I handed my stuff over to the young boy who said "Thank you" so politely, and as I nodded to the young woman who asked me if I wanted a "Support our Troops" bracelet because I was unable to speak and very grateful for my sunglasses, I thought about patriotism and what it means to me.

I vote, but I don't do much else to promote the interests of this country. I'm informed, I pay taxes, I support the USO, there's an American flag that always flies in the front of my house, and now I have a yellow "Support our Troops" bracelet. But I'm just a short step away from those who don't bother to vote. I'm too old to fight in the military and never would have pursued that option anyway for a number of reasons. I don't suppose there's a category for uncoordinated people who are accident-prone, but I'd have to be in that category. But there are things I can do to support my country's authority and its interests and it doesn't have to be big like run for office. Now I just have to identify what that thing might be and do it well.

Sunday, June 7

Lions for Lambs: If you don't STAND for something, you might FALL for anything

I finally saw Lions for Lambs. One of things I like about getting DVDs from the library or through Netflix is that I can watch some of the extra stuff on the DVD and I did enjoy watching the interviews with the actors.

I really enjoyed the film. It's a thoughtful, considered film that makes some wonderful points without hammering any its possible messages to the viewer. I appreciate the deft performances Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise. I loved that politicians and the media were taken to task for their parts in offering the people propaganda rather than news even though they call it "news." I loved that words were treated with care and there were subtle reminders that context and intent are important. I loved that Redford's character, Dr. Malley, saw one of his professorial roles as chiding the msmart and faux malcontent, challenging him to think bigger and beyond himself, and encouraging him to do more than sit on the sidelines and take potshots at those taking a chance by being in the game.

What I really, really loved, though, is the idea of skipping or changing the junior year. I don't think it could work for all students in all majors and the options might have to be broadened to allow different kinds of opportunities so that pre-med students are working with Doctors without Borders or in free clinics in urban areas, and that pre-law students are doing unpaid internships with overtaxed public defenders' offices or with some other agencies that try to provide legal services to underserved people, and that those inclined to social work are working with any of hundreds of social services agencies that are desperate for help but have no money, and that those inclined to go into criminal justice work with prisons or prisoner support programs or some other agency that, like the social services agencies, are desperate for help but have no money.

The State of California has been in the news for its staggering financial crisis. The State of Illinois has been in the news because its politicians remained focused on being heroic rather than honest; perhaps they should watch Lions for Lambs and realize we are weary of propaganda and empty political rhetoric. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn believes the only way to take care of the budget crisis is to raise the income tax. I've heard 50% and 67% as the amount of the increase, and, like Schwarzenegger, Quinn says there will be dire consequences even if the government makes big cuts and still doesn't raise taxes.

What Quinn and his colleagues don't seem to understand is that people in Cook County especially do NOT trust politicians. At all. This is true of Mayor Daley and Cook County President Todd Stroger. There is absolutely no such thing as transparency in any way shape or form in Illinois politics and I just have to wonder if they truly believe we will continue to swallow the hogwash they insist on offering.

But I also have to make note of the so-called editorial expose efforts of the Chicago Tribune, especially the political commentators. Can I trust their motives any more than I can trust the politicians who are seemingly more concerned with re-election than actually serving the public?

So my thanks to Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise for making such a fine and thoughtful film. Kudos to Matthew Michalel Carnahan for writing this screenplay. If I taught political science in college or related courses in high school, I'd make sure this film was part of the curriculum.

A few final thoughts. I loved the ending of the film. I loved that it was open-ended, that the young man well-played by Andrew Garfield was sitting, watching TV, as though thoughtfully chewing his lip and contemplating his situation and quite probably his future. I loved that it left the viewer with no concrete answers in the hopes, I suspect, of challenging viewers to think about what they stand for and, perhaps most importantly, why.

Printer's Row Book Fair

The Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Lit Fest/Book Fair was this weekend. I went yesterday with a friend of mine. As we prepared to cross the street to the start of the tents and displays, I looked around at those who also waited to cross the street and at the others who were already passing the sawhorses that demarcated the entrance. I asked my friend what she thought might be the median age of the attendees. She answered immediately: "37." I agreed with her.

We arrived around 1P on an overcast and coolish day, immediately plunging into the throng. We soon decided to pass by the first few stalls because everyone seemed to have stopped at them. Soon we settled into a sort of rhythm as we bent our heads to look at book spines, bumped into others as intent as we on the lines and shelves of books.

I did buy a few book there because, well, $7 for a $14 paperback is a good deal and while I could check it out of the library, I'd forget it was something I was interested in and that would be one more title on one more list. I mean, my Netflix queue list is ridiculously long, so I bought them. Never mind that the stacks of books around my house are ridiculous.

But I noticed a couple of things. First, people were generally very polite, apologizing for bumping to each other and making way for egress and entrance in the crowded stalls.

Second, my friend and I were wrong about the median age. There were a LOT of young people at the book fest. Of course, the lit fest/book fair is scheduled after most colleges and universities are out so most of those were college students. There is a tremendous draw because there are big name authors present for presentations and book signings. But I was pleasantly surprised to see so many kids at the book fest. I felt reassured that reading is not completely passe and mused that perhaps we have been too quick to begin to mourn the death of the books.