Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama's Arizona Memorial Speech: A Personal Distillation

"To rate this address on any political meter would be to demean it. The president wrested free of politics tonight and spoke of greater things. I pledge myself to try and follow his advice and debate with vigor and spirit and candor and bluntness, but with more civility, more empathy, and, yes, more love."
--Andrew Sullivan

I watched President Obama's memorial speech last night. At first I felt a little uncomfortable with the exuberance of the crowd. Many smiled, clapped, and cheered more like they were at a political pep rally than gathered to pay their sober respects to last Saturday's fallen and to the heroes who came to their aid, and it almost seemed to me that President Obama himself was initially a little uncertain as how to pace and voice his oratory in that milieu of ambivalent emotions and mixed expectations.

But as he continued, he gradually seemed to find his stride, and I, in turn, became so focused on the meaning of the message that the aesthetics of its delivery, the style of the messenger, and the response of the crowd ceased to hold any great importance for me.

Beyond his poignant recounting of Gabrielle Giffords opening her eyes for the first time, his moving tributes to the slain and wounded, and his glowing praise for the heroes who risked life and limb to save the fallen and subdue a murderous madman, what was President Obama's message when distilled to its essence?

What I distilled from it was that we honor the fallen by doing our level best to rise above partisan bickering, blaming, hating, and vilifying to find the human and spiritual ties that bind us and work together to make ourselves, each other, and our great nation better than they were before. Yes, we can speculate on and even debate what led to the shootings and how to prevent such tragedies in the future, and we can disagree on the answers, but we can and should do it with empathy and love in our hearts and with respect and civility in our demeanors.

After the speech, I read Andrew Sullivan's words above and resolved to make his pledge my own as well. Following through is not an easy thing to do though. Last night, in the immediate wake of President Obama's soul- stirring words, it seemed easy enough. But by now, after seeing business return to quarrelsome normality on TV, talk radio, and the blogosphere, it's tempting to let myself follow suit and regress back to snide remarks, finger pointing, angry denunciations, and other derogations of those, especially on the political right, who don't believe as I do. Yet, I am determined to resist these regressive urges and at the very least, as I wrote yesterday, not contribute to the divisiveness that plagues our country when we can ill afford to let it rage on.

Below is my selection of the most substantive passages from the president's speech followed by an embedded video of the entire speech.

What, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family - especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward - but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others...

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jared Loughner, Free Speech, Guns, and Me

Ever since the horrible shootings in a shopping mall in Tucson, AZ last Saturday, I've been reading all kinds of articles about the incident itself and the people involved as well as commentary about the contributory role violent political rhetoric did, didn't, may have, or may not have played in this terrible tragedy. And when I think about all I've read in light of my own life experience and understandings, I come to the conclusion that it's all too complicated for me to be as simple and conclusive in my opinions as many people across the entire political spectrum appear to be in theirs.

For one thing, although I hate what Jared Loughner did, I don't know what "we the people" should do to him in legal response. I think he acted crazy before, during, and after the shootings, and I don't think this was just an "act."

But even though I'm philosophically opposed to punishing people for committing crimes their apparent mental disorderdness caused them to commit, I emotionally want Jared Loughner to pay for his crimes in a manner that goes beyond mere lifetime incarceration in a mental ward or prison. I want him to suffer to the point where he genuinely regrets the harm and devastation he caused, even if it's only regret for the way it destroyed his own life and prospects for happiness, and to where other potential mass murderers are deterred by his well-publicized suffering from acting out their own murderous proclivities and fantasies. But what kind and degree of suffering would this entail in order to be effective without being grossly unjust? I don't know.

For another thing, I hear people blaming Loughner's parents for raising him to be crazy or, at least, for not getting him the help he needed to overcome his craziness or, at least, not act it out in a murderous frenzy last Saturday morning. But what do these critics know that I don't about Loughner's parents? I certainly don't know enough to pass scathing judgement on them or to pass any judgement on them whatsoever, and so I won't.

Finally, people on the left are accusing people on the right of spurring Loughner to violence with their violent political rhetoric and of enabling him to be so destructive with it by their legal blocking of attempts to keep people like him from getting their deranged hands on semi-automatic firearms and extended ammo clips meant for SWAT teams and soldiers at war, while there are those on the right who excoriate the left for, as one of the right's more brilliantly intellectual albeit obscure spokespersons calls it, its "vicious" and "exploitative" attacks on the right.

Well, I consider myself strongly inclined toward the left end of the political spectrum, but I don't flatly accuse right-wing rhetoric of causing the shootings in question or seek to have such rhetoric outlawed, nor do I wish to pry firearms from the patriotic hands of the American public. But I do think it would be a good idea to seize the moment to discuss and reflect upon the corrosive and provocative effects the prevailingly bitter political partisanship and violent rhetoric coming from people of all political persuasions may be having on this great nation, and I also think that no private citizen, at least not without special and well-considered dispensation, needs to be legally entitled to carry around unlicensed, concealed, autoloading firearms with 30+ round clips in public.

What's more, I don't think that one needs to be a "vicious" liberal exploiting a tragedy in order to sock it to conservatives to believe as I do and express it in this or any forum.

Beyond what I do and don't think about all of this, I don't know what to do about any of it except continue to discuss it with people who seem receptive to dialogue, but discuss it and all subjects and issues of political or other significance with civility and respect for the people with whom I'm discussing them. For whether angry rhetoric and debate played or didn't play a significant role in Loughner's actions, I think it's a real problem in this country, and I don't want to be part of the problem.

Maybe I can or can't help bring the country together, but I can darn sure stop doing anything to drive it further apart.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Autism's Paradox

"You've never been in my body. I wish for one day you could be in my body."
--Autistic girl Carly's typed message to her father

A little boy in my family is autistic. I knew this before his parents, grandparents, and even doctors knew it or, at least, were willing to concede it. Perhaps this is because "it takes one to know one." That is, when I was a little boy myself, my mother thought I was autistic because of the weird ways I would withdraw from the world outside and immerse myself in an inner world of my own. And I think it's fair to say that I haven't completely outgrown this condition even to this late day. I have never been "normal," and, at almost 58 years of age, I think it's more than reasonable to say that I never will be.

Yet, at least I was always able to express myself well, perhaps uncommonly so, with spoken and, later, written language. If I've been endowed with any cognitive gifts whatsoever, however modest they may be, it's the gift of my linguistic ability. At least this is true of my English. I don't speak any other languages and have a devil of a time whenever I try to learn them. My greatest fear, at least for this life, is what would happen to me if I lost this gift to some brain-crippling condition and became cognitively impaired in every way instead of in every way but verbally the way I am now.

But what would it be like if I had never grown enough out of my autistic or autistic-like immersion in myself to be able to express myself to others or manage the other demands of everyday life well enough to be able to live with any independence at all? What would my life be like? How happy could I be locked inside myself, and how would I experience the world?

This remarkable video may provide some inkling of how an autistic person experiences the world in that she is able, with stunning eloquence, to communicate that experience, by typing on a computer, in a way that she could never convey by any other means. To look at her hand-flapping, incessant fidgeting, paroxysmic shouting, and other stereotypically autistic behaviors, you'd think there was nothing beyond the most rudimentary, animalistic consciousness going on between her ears.

But when you read her typed words on a computer monitor, you are overwhelmed with the realization that autistic people can be extremely intelligent and incredibly aware of what's going on around and inside them, and they know full well how strangely they're acting, but they just can't stop themselves. As the girl in the video explains, she does the strange things she does "to drown out all the sensory input that overloads us all at once. We create output to block out input."

Isn't it ironic that autistic people sometimes look as though they're almost unaware of the outside world precisely because, in a sense, they're TOO aware of it?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Henry Bemis and Me: Time Enough For What?

Yesterday I caught an episode of SyFy's Twilight Zone marathon. It happened to be the most famous if not beloved episode of the iconic original version of the series.

Time Enough at Last features the great Burgess Meredith as henpecked bibliophile and bank clerk Henry Bemis who emerges one afternoon from the bank vault in which he takes his daily lunch and reading break to discover that he's the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust. In his desperate wanderings through the decimated city, he becomes so despondent that he's ready to commit suicide until he discovers the public library nearby with its gazillions of intact books waiting for him.

Between all these books and his access to all the unspoiled food he can eat for the rest of his life, he has almost everything he's ever truly wanted, and his despondency turns to elation as he realizes that he'll no longer be barred by duties at the bank and at home from reading to his joyful heart's content. Yet, when he bends down to read one of the books he's selected, his very thick glasses fall off his nose and shatter on the pavement, he's rendered all but blind, and he's left sobbing, "It's not fair...that's not fair."

This episode resonates with me partly because I consider myself to be a little like Henry Bemis. I've always been more at home in the world of words and ideas than in the one of people and things, and, even though my wife doesn't treat my reading with the contempt that Mr. Bemis meets from his wife and his boss, I never feel as though I have enough time to do all the reading I'd like to do. I think I would be uncommonly happy to be able to spend most of the rest of my life just reading and writing, and if I were to end up in Mr. Bemis's shoes as the only survivor of some kind of catastrophe, I think I'd spend a good deal of my time, if possible, reading books and writing.

Yet, if there were no one around with whom to discuss what I read or to read what I wrote, and if I weren't faced with the normal challenges of life and people to which I could apply the insights I gleaned from my readings and ponderings, what would be the point of them? When one comes right down to it, it seems that the purpose of reading, learning, and pondering is not simply to do and enjoy them in a vacuum but to share them and use them in other ways with other people.

Even if I weren't the lone survivor of a holocaust but simply living, reading, and writing, like Thoreau, in a cabin in the wilderness, I would ultimately be doing all of this to bring something back to civilization when I finally returned to it. If I knew that I'd have to spend the rest of my life in that isolated cabin with no one else around, I might read and write simply for diversion's sake, but much of my enthusiasm for it would probably be gone and, even surrounded by books and food enough to last me for years, I'd probably soon fall into implacable despair. And I'm guessing that even Henry Bemis would too.

For even when we want to escape the world by plunging ourselves into books or television or whatever, we often do it to become wiser and happier in the real world and with real people outside the artificial realms of books, television, and ideas. We escape to reemerge wiser and better than before.