Archive for December, 2008

Oprah and Me

For those reading my blog, used to all the political opinions and analysis expressed during the election, I apologize that for the time being I’m a bit exhausted by politics.  However, if you want my reaction to the Blogojevich scandal, I think my post from June on Power and Politics gives a sense of how I look at that kind of thing.

And for those who read interested in my views on the economy, you might wonder why I haven’t spoken out about the Automobile industry bailout bill.  Part of it is that I’ve been unbelievably busy dealing with a crisis at work.   Not a personal problem, but I’m head of the faculty union and we’ve got a kind of institutional crisis that is keeping me too busy to follow the news.   Also, all this bail out stuff is getting out of hand.  My view: either let the industry go into bankruptcy, or else nationalize it in the short term, go through the books, put things in order, and then re-privatize when times are a bit better.  But don’t keep it nationalized!

No, today I want to talk about a problem I have in common with Oprah.  Like her, I tend to gain and lose weight.  I’m 6 feet tall and going over the last 20 years, I weighed 205 in 1988, 183 in 1990, 200 in 1992, 180 in 1993, 210 in 1995, 185 in 1996, 211 in 1998, 180 in 1999, 215 in 2003, 184 in 2005, and earlier this year I hit 216.  Now I’m at 207 and am working out daily trying to lose weight.  So when I read about Oprah’s admittedly larger weight swings, I had to empathize.

My closet is full of clothes I can’t wear right now.  Almost all my pants are too tight, and over half of my shirts can’t be worn.  It’s not so much that they are way too small (my pants are, some of them would burst) but that they are too tight and my gut would stick out.   At the upper end of my weight swing I wear lose shirts with a tie, at the lower end I’ll wear Henley’s.   I do know I’ll wear those clothes again.  Look at my track record.  While I always put the pounds back on, I also always take them off.  We have a work out room in the basement with a bow flex, step machine (mine) and elliptical (my wife’s).  We both are using them.   In fact, we tend to mirror each other’s weight patterns, either reinforcing decisions to go for that dessert, it’s OK…or on the positive side, her doing a work out tonight got me to put my work aside and get on the step machine.

So why can’t I keep the weight off for good when I lose it?  Why can’t Oprah? The problem is probably the same: love of food that is unhealthy.  I can’t resist sugar, dairy fat, pasta and pizza.  Even when I diet that’s my diet — food I like, but in small controlled doses.   My wife actually follows diets like the South Beach diet or tries to prepare healthy low fat food…I just make my portions smaller, skip snacks and desserts, and exercise.

The trouble is, while I can easily get myself into a weight loss groove, I can’t turn it off and moderate my portions to hold a lower weight.  I can for a couple months, but then stress, kids, or a couple weeks of indulgence gets me into a slow climb.  I think I can stop the climb and get back down…oops, I gained 5, gotta take it back off…now it’s 7..11…15, yikes I’m back up over 200!  Then it’s calorie counting time.   Last time it was the birth of my second son Dana, now almost three.  Two kids take a lot of time, and I got out of the workout mode for awhile.

But in recent blogs the wonderful third eve, whose blogs are some of the most interesting and thought provoking I’ve read, has been talking about life patterns — and certainly this weight loss and gain is a pattern for me.  I first lost 30 pounds when I was 15 after being teased (and that’s putting it mildly) mercilessly for being chubby.  I think one reason I keep taking it back off is I probably never let go of that body image paranoia.

Yet what I aspire to is the kind of on going wellness Ron Byrnes in his Wellness Writ Large embraces.  His talk of marathons and biking (though his blog is eclectic, covering politics, education, and all sorts of issues) demonstrate a wellness life style that I should try to develop.  I’m an older dad, I owe it to my kids to stay fit!   So I’m down 9 pounds now, and on a roll.  Will I finally break the pattern this time — lose and figure out how to stay healthy?  Will I figure out what this external pattern reflects from my inner self?  Or will the pattern repeat?   Now I just have to stay away from the Special K bars I prepared for my class.  Special K may be a healthy cereal, but not when mixed with sugar, corn syrup, peanut butter, and melted chocolate and butterscotch chips.

At least I know that this is a problem I share with Oprah.

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Believe

In my blog I’ve often noted a crisis of spirit in the modern world.  Organized religions of the past can’t stand the scrutiny of logic and reason, while logic and reason can’t really give a sense of meaning to life.  There seems to be something more, but our modern minds tell us to disregard anything not provable through some kind of logical, evidentiary manner, so we need up having to choose between holding on to traditional religious beliefs, or simply rejecting all that as superstition and embrace materialism and rationality.  But since reason can be used to undermine itself (first noticed by the fideists, then perfected by post-modernists) we’re left with really nothing to believe.

Believe.  That brings me to the movie The Polar Express.  Movies move me on various levels.  Some, like Hotel Rwanda confront real life human tragedy and cruelty, others deal with emotions and dilemmas.  I’m not at all afraid to be teary eyed, I’ll willingly throw myself into the experience and wrap myself into the film while it’s taking place.  The best are ones that move me at a deep, philosophical or even spiritual level.  Where I get tears in my eyes not from the emotions or actions on the screen, but from the deep message that gets conveyed. The Polar Express is one of them.

On it’s face it’s a film about a boy who is doubting the existence of Santa Claus.  He’s told his sister all the rational reasons why Santa doesn’t exist — he’d have to fly faster than the speed of light, the size of his sled would be greater than a number of ocean liners, etc. — and is staying up to test whether or not Santa really comes, listening for the sleigh bells and trying to stay awake.  Then suddenly a train whistle blares in his room and the room shakes.  A huge train is outside his house.  He gets aboard and after a variety of adventures ends up at the North Pole, developing friendships with a few other children and getting strange assistance from a ghostly hobo who disappears as soon as he aids the boy.  Through it all he can’t hear the sleigh bells other children can.  At the end, as he learns the magic of Christmas, he hears them, and is chosen by Santa to get the first gift of the year.  He chooses a sleigh bell.  He loses it from a hole in his pocket, only to find it the next morning in a gift box from Santa.  His parents can’t hear its ring, but he and his sister can.  In the end, as the narrator — an older version of the boy — notes how over time all his friends and even his sister came to no longer be able to hear the bell.  But he still could.

On its face, a nice little story about the magic of Christmas.  And perhaps that’s all it’s intended to be.  But I read into it a fable about our modern dilemma.  The key word in the film — the one ultimately punched on the boy’s ticket — is believe.  To me the dilemma about Santa Claus faced by the boy is the dilemma we face when thinking about religion or spiritual ideas of life.  We want to believe there is more than just this material existence, we want to see the world as somewhat magical and with meaning, yet all the evidence we see points to a flawed human nature, and our lives as wisps of sand thrown about by chance and circumstance.  The good often suffer, the bad often prosper, and life seems to have no meaning, other than that which we manage to construct for ourselves in our short dance on this planet.  But even that is transient and ultimately meaningless — and since the sun will go nova and the universe will keep expanding, we confront the fact there is nothing grounding us or providing ultimate meaning.

And what is the magic?  Well, the ghostly hobo on the train Santa Claus are played by the same person (Tom Hanks).  He is also the conductor of the train who guides the children to the North Pole…and he also is boy (albeit with a voice from someone else).  The animation uses real characters as a basis for creating others, so they look difference, though the resemblance is real.  The magic comes from friendship — how the boy stops the train to let another “lonely boy” in, who resists their efforts until he bonds with the boy and a girl who seems to have an intuitive sense of what to do.  To me the message ends up being that the magic is real, you simply have to believe.  And this doesn’t mean believing in a particular God or faith, but in life.  To see the power in oneself and the connections to others.  That if one believes in life as more than just a dreary material existence, if one avoids getting caught up in politics, sports, and gossip as somehow the essential aspect of life, and looks at the world as a beautiful, magical place full of opportunity, then it becomes that way.

Of course, there are numerous arguments against this.  I teach units on the Rwandan and Cambodian genocide, look at third world poverty and famine, and we see wars, children soldiers, and a host of horrors that defy this nice magical picture from a children’s movie about Christmas.   Yet even in those horrors, we see a sense of greater meaning.  Romeo Dallaire and Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda, the experiences of survivors in Cambodia and their actions afterwards, all speak to the great nobility possible in people to choose to rise above the expectations of the moment, defy the collective sense of reality and believe in something higher.   These horrors show what happens when we lose sight of the connection we have with others, and cut ourselves off from the beauty of life, only to get lost in the ugliness of hate, ideology, and greed — an unquenchable greed that destroys those who fall victim to it.  That’s what makes the stories of those who rise above it so powerful.

So I find a balance.  Confront the horrors and learn from them, but to nonetheless believe.  To always believe.  To keep strong that part of myself that says that no matter what happens, life is beautiful, there is joy, and every day and minute is an opportunity to discover and experience it.  To get lost in worries about the transient trivialities of daily life is a waste of time; we should live, not just exist.  So I’ll put Polar Express up alongside other favorite movies, such as Mary Poppins and What Dreams May Come.   Somehow we need to find a way as a culture to embrace the power of belief, love, and connection without having to at the same time embrace divisive religious structures.  We need to find a way to accept the power of the tools of reason and logic without then deriding that which lies beyond reason and evidence as naive, soft, or superstitious.  I’m not sure how to do it, we just have to feel it.  And a movie like Polar Express helps me feel it, even if I don’t completely understand it.

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History and Life Appreciation

I am always amazed at the lack of knowledge of history by most Americans, as well as disdain many have for cultural history the arts.    Virtually no one remembers or knows about the Cambodian genocide, especially people under 30.  Knowledge of the great wars and ideological battles of the 20th century is meager at best — a “Cold War” that appears a bit ridiculous to today’s youth, and world wars that now seem more to be entertainment for the History Channel than real.

Today is one such day.  December 7th is Pearl Harbor day, commemorating a day that for a time was as emotionally powerful as 9-11 is today.  There have been movies like Tora, Tora, Tora or more recently Pearl Harbor, a Hollywood blockbuster.  But ask around what ‘happened on this day’, especially to people under 30 and not especially interested in world affairs and you’ll often get a blank stare.  People do not remember the ‘day that will live in infamy.’

I suppose that could be dismissed as no big deal — forgetting a date doesn’t mean one doesn’t know what happened, and memorizing dates doesn’t lead to real understanding.  I disagree — I have always found the ‘don’t memorize dates’ mantra of some to be misguided, learning dates allows one to create a chronological map in ones head.  Knowing that Germany attacked the Soviet Union almost half a year before Pearl Harbor is important to know.  Yet I think the problem is deeper, our culture has become so obsessed with the present and the future that the past is seen at best as an interesting story, but not necessarily important.

To be sure, you’ll always have ‘history buffs,’ folk who immerse themselves in history, often focusing on particular eras like the civil war, military history, or Nazi Germany.  There’s a reason why so many of the popular history books are about war.   And a lot of people are truly fascinated by learning of what life was like in the past.  To me, knowledge of history gives one a different perspective of life.

For instance, I find myself often thinking, as I drive to work, how this landscape might have looked in the past, imagine it with Indians, early settlers, or even in the recent past.  I think about how it might change, and view even my own little corner of the world as a point not only in space, but in time.  The more I learn about the past, the more real that is to me.  When I’m with travel courses in Italy and can convey the history, the experience changes.  Venice, for instance, is more than just a beautiful, romantic tourist trap, but the buildings and layout have meaning, one can feel as if one is walking through time.  When I took a class to Wittenberg, Germany to talk about the impact of the reformation on European politics, being there made a huge difference, students noted it clearly in their journals.  Connecting to history is important not just to learn lessons or honor the past, but also to enrich our own appreciation of this life we have.  It protects us from falling into the trap of living superficially, so focused on the bills, problems and conflicts of the day that we don’t fully appreciate what life means.  If we don’t live with appreciation of our social-historical context, we are going through life with blinders, focused on a small and usually unsatisfying aspect of this existence.

Similarly, people tend not to connect with the arts and our cultural history. I co-teach courses with Steve Pane, a renowned pianist and music historian, and Sarah Maline, an art historian.   It’s clear that if one looks at art or listens to music without understanding the social political context in which that art was created, the experience is less.  When Steve and I co-taught a section that dealt with The Marraige of Figaro, not only did we go through the details of the French revolution and the impact of the enlightenment, but Steve also recalled a “confrontation” (albeit friendly) between himself and Sarah.  Focused on Italian history, Steve had a rather benign view of Napoleon, who had in many ways made life better for the Italians and set up the later Risorgimento.  Sarah, who has done considerable work on Spanish art history, saw Napoleon as a horrible perpetrator of war crimes and atrocities — the Italian and Spanish experiences of Napoleonic rule differ, as does its impact on various art forms.

If music from the classical or romantic era is just some nice stuff played on NPR, and paintings are just interesting things you might feel compelled to go see at the Louvre in Paris, then one can be forgiven for thinking a lot of this “culture” is boring.  Compared to our fast paced world of action epics and frenetic video games, it does seem rather bland.  When one learns not only about art and music history, but connects it to the changes in culture, politics, and human thought, it suddenly means so much more.  Co-teaching with colleagues the last decade has enriched my life more than I could imagine.  My Children and War course with Mellisa has led me to reshape my future research direction, while learning more about the arts has affected both my research and my personal enjoyment of life.  Learning something new brings real benefits!

Alas, as much as Steve has taught me to appreciate about music, he needs my help to overcome one obstacle: he doesn’t like musicals.  He wouldn’t use those words (he does not want to sound judgmental), he’d say he finds them “uninteresting,” I guess like I might find Dunkin Donuts coffee.  Friday night I went to a concert by a singer of whom I am becoming a big fan: Dennis St. Pierre. He gave a great concert with his colleagues Devin Dukes and Jason Hersom, half broadway musical songs, half Christmas music.   Last summer I saw Dennis St. Pierre in Les Miserables at the Maine State Music Theater, and I blogged about it in an entry “Compassion.”  Because of the internet I found I could e-mail him, so I send him a link to the blog entry, where I described the profound meaning the performance had for me.  I was amazed/delighted when he wrote back that he had shared my blog with the entire cast.  Wow.  What a treat to be able to actually communicate to artists how much their work means!  Anyway, I got on his mailing list and hence found out about the concert last night. It was great.

I’m not sure how I’m going to get Steve to get over his aversion to musicals and learn to really appreciate them, but I’ll try, maybe cajoling him over espresso at the “piazza” in the arts department.   And to be fair to Steve, since I’m teasing him here, he amazes me with his eclectic capacity to engage not only wide ranges of music from Radiohead to world sounds, but his interest in politics, philosophy, popular culture, etc.   I guess we all have our version of Dunkin Donuts coffee.

I tell students nothing is more important in writing than transitions, but I don’t know how I can get back to Pearl Harbor day from that aside, so I’ll just shift gears.   Most people will bemoan the lack of knowledge of what December 7th means by criticizing the youth for not knowing the importance of the WWII, or understanding the struggle to defeat fascism and Japanese militarism.   Most will see it from the standpoint of a ‘date all citizens should know.’  That is a valid point.  But more fundamental: as a culture disconnecting from history or the arts, we hurt ourselves on many levels — including how we appreciate everyday life.

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Abstraction is the Root of all Evil

In the course Children and War we showed a movie today called “The Invisible Children,” documenting a 2003 journey of some young Americans first to Sudan and then Uganda to find out what is going on in that part of the world.   The film was powerful; not only do we see how three apparently average young adults (early 20s, I’d guess) suddenly decide to head to Africa to learn about the violence and unrest there, but it’s recorded on their camcorder, not an official documentary.

In it we meet the children affected by the war in Uganda.  That war has been going on for over 20 years, with tens of thousands of children abducted in order to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group that claims to be “inspired by the Holy Spirit” but in reality is a hyper violent rebel force in northern Uganda.   The film documents the hundreds of children who, without adult assistance, walk miles every night to sleep in relatively safety in the bigger towns, taking shelter so that they are not kidnapped by the rebels.   Many are former child soldiers who have committed atrocities but are now trying to build a new life, others simply want to survive.  They have little, they live in squalor, and there are no schools or long term hope.

The film was graphic and moving.   We got to know the children by name as the film makers conducted in depth interviews.  They also showed numerous scenes of children dancing, praying, singing praises to God (they are mostly Christian) for having survived another day, and playing.  Somehow, despite the horror, the children do experience a lot of joy in their lives.

Yet the most riveting parts of the film were the points where children talked about their experiences, their dead siblings or family members, and their fears.   When the film was over, we were going to have class discussion.   As I looked at the class I saw that everyone was in tears, even five minutes after the film was over the faces of the students looked traumatized, as they were unable to talk.   Even the other instructor was unable to say anything.   A couple of students who had seen it before were less affected, as was a student from Nigeria.  But the rest simply stared out and continued to grab for tissues.

I then asked the class a question.  I note that I’ve talked about the conflict in Uganda to other classes.  I’ve given the number of child soldiers, talked about the war in southern Sudan (not to be confused with Darfur) for years, and even mentioned the children who have to commute to safety every night.  But never has any class reacted like this.  Why?   One woman, who would remain after class still in tears, finally said “we didn’t know them.”

In my classes I often use films and novels to go along with facts about a conflict or intense poverty.   When you get to know the names of children and see what their lives are like, it is much more gripping than being handed statistics.

I tried for awhile to get discussion going.  I related these emotions back to the Chris Hedges book we read earlier in the semester, War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, where he gives a graphic account of his years as a Pulitzer prize winning war reporter, showing how the myth of war and its enticing and addictive character hides the utter horror of its reality.  In the end he argues that love is the only force that can truly give us meaning that matters.   (I had a blog entry based on Hedges’ book last month.)

The students were saddened and sickened by the film because they saw other humans like themselves, children like their siblings or themselves a few years ago, living lives that should not be wished upon anyone.   They connected with the experience; even in a brief one hour film, these kids were real.  I pointed out that one cannot love a statistic or an abstraction.  Saying “there are 25,000 child soldiers in Uganada” is meaningless.  You can make a note of it, or think, “gee, that sucks,” but there is no emotional connection.  The same goes for war.   You can say “over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the last five years,” but that won’t get near the emotional reaction as having a young man or woman from ones’ hometown become a casualty of war.  One you know; the others are abstractions.

Abstraction is the root of all evil.  It allows one to see others are objects, irrelevant and disconnected from oneself.  This happens unconsciously, one doesn’t overtly say “I don’t think Ugandan children matter,” one simply doesn’t notice their humanity.  It is only a number.    We often hear rationalizations for that lack of concern.  You can’t compare Africa to America.  They don’t value their lives as much as we value ours.  They are savage or primitive.   Their culture is just different.

Those rationalizations only work when you remain disconnected.  In all cultures and societies, once you start learning about the people themselves and their conditions, you quickly understand that we humans are, indeed, all the same species.  We share a common core of psychological and physical needs; the continuities across cultures are far more powerful than the variances between cultures at basic human levels.   One cannot watch three 12 year olds trying to study in the darkness while they are barely surviving poverty in a war zone and dismiss them as primitive or not valuing life.  One can’t hear their stories (we also read Ishmael Beah’s book Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier) and learn their perspectives while holding on to a notion that we really are fundamentally different or more valuable.

We live our lives in a world of abstractions.  Other humans are labels, objects to be competed against, or villains trying to rob us of our freedom and happiness.  Thus it is easy to lay blame, avoid responsibility, and rationalize our wants, desires, and acts that do harm.   We all do it.   Sometimes we imagine traits to others that are caricatures (‘that car that just cut me off is being driven by some arrogant asshole who showed total disrespect for me by nudging in front, damn it, I’ll pass him now!), other times we simply look away.  We become very adept at living in and as abstractions.  Reason and rational thought are powerful tools, and are quite at home with an abstraction based view of reality.

But in those moments where we are confronted with the reality of other peoples’ pain, suffering, and humanness, the abstractions fall apart.  We cry.   We hurt.   We look at our own lives and realize how pathetically petty we are in fretting about trivialities while others fight to survive and endure hardship after hardship.   Emotion connects us with our humanity.   But not just any emotion; as noted a few days ago, fascism relies on emotion for its appeal and ability to manipulate the public.  Advertisers know emotion sells far more than making an argument on why one needs a product.   No, emotion that connects us with humanity is that which breaks through the abstractions and causes us to honestly empathize with the perspective and experience of another, without judgment or distance.  That emotion is love, not a romantic love, not even an agape selfless giving love.  Rather, it is feeling that others are truly as important as oneself, with the same inherent value and life.   It transcends reason and rational discourse.

Today as I saw the looks on those faces, I realized that the class had experienced that strength of emotion — of love for others — through a one hour film put together by three young men who traveled to Africa with a camcorder to just try to learn what was going on.   That, combined with the scenes they had of African children dancing, praying and singing gives me a strong sense of hope.   Books and films can changes ones’ whole perspective on life and the world through evoking the emotion of love, even if it doesn’t feel like one expects love to feel.   In a world afflicted with problems that, if taken as a whole, seem horribly depressing and brutally unsolvable, hope matters.   Small steps matter.   Acts of kindness matter, even if one doesn’t see the results right away.

And, when the rational voice speaks up saying, “look, those problems are everywhere, don’t worry about it, you can’t change the world anyway, your actions don’t matter, donate a little to an organization and forget about the problem so you can focus on your day to day world,” recognize the rationality of that statement.  And then smash those abstractions away.   Saving the world may not be possible and isn’t necessary.   But to ignore the humanity of others and deny any connection is to deny ourselves of real love.  And that hurts everybody.

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Beer, Coffee, and Travel

After I returned from a year studying in Italy I learned the lesson all travel lovers learn.  First, the travel experience is so rewarding and meaningful to ones’ life that one wants to talk about it a lot.  Second, unless one is talking to a ‘fellow traveler’ all the talk of foreign destinations and different customs can be annoying to others.  It can sound snobbish, “well, in Italy I was at a cafe along the Venetian canal when…”   We don’t mean to sound that way, it’s just that it’s hard not to talk about travel experiences, they change lives and perspectives.

However, in terms of beer and coffee, travel has turned me to a snob.   I don’t like American beers or American style coffee.   I’ll drink coffee for the caffeine here, but I get little taste satisfaction from the experience.  Except for rare occasions I’ll just forego beer and go for wine instead.

Today I stopped by a local convenience store, Ron’s Market, because someone said it had a good selection of beers.  I’ve driven by it many times, but it’s not close to where I live and looked like just another of those dime a dozen convenience stores.  I walked in and headed to the beer section.  Whoa!  I could not believe my eyes, they had Schneider Weisse, a Munich wheat beer that has since 1983 been my favorite beer in the world.   They also had other Weissbiere (wheat beers): Ayinger and Franziskaner, both quality beers, but it’s rare to find Schneider Weisse here in the US.  They had two.   I bought two.  And I told the woman at the register that if they keep getting that brand, they’ll have me as a loyal customer.   To be sure, at $4 a bottle it may be only one or two a week.  But what a treat!

Tastes are interesting things.  There can, of course, be no “best” beer, coffee or pasta sauce.  People like different tastes, smells and textures.  Moreover, taste can also connect to emotion.   Back when I visited my pen pal Gabi in Eichstätt, Bavaria (coming up from Bologna, Italy, where I was studying) I made a lot of friends. I also was introduced to Hefe-Weizen, a Bavarian wheat beer or Weissbier which I loved immediately.  Unlike the bland American beers I was used to (my favorites had been “Old Style” and “Strohs”), it was rich, full, had a thick foamy head, and color was clouded by yeast sediment that gave the beer a yeasty taste and smell.  It was sweet, delicious, and in trying different brands I finally decided that Schneider Weisse, which I tried in Munich at the Schneider Weisse beer garden, was the best.

When I open a Weissbier I am transported back to Germany and that year when I was first discovering travel in foreign lands.  Before 1982 I had never been outside of the US except to skim through Canada on a spur of the moment college jaunt from Sioux Falls to New York City. Then after getting into the MA program at Johns Hopkins SAIS,with the first year in Bologna, Italy, I headed off alone to Europe, not really knowing what to expect.  I would learn new languages, new cultures, and new tastes.  Smell and the taste are more than an experience of the senses, it connects one with the past — I connect with the feelings and excitement I had that year in Europe.   When I drink a Weissbier, part of me is in the past, with friends in a beer garden; I can almost taste the Weisswurst and sausages that might go along with the experience.

American beers have no chance.  While other European beers — Oktoberfest beer, Pils, Kolsch, and some from outside Germany — are enjoyable, they all connect with my travels in some way.  They are special tastes, I’m not just drinking a beer, part of me is traveling.  But American beer?  If I can find an “Old Style” (not sold in Maine), I may connect with college, but otherwise, they’re just bland and sometimes refreshing.  But not really worth drinking much of — why have those empty calories?  So, I’m a beer snob.

The same goes with coffee.  All that year in Italy (where I actually lived) I drank espresso.  Now, in Italy espresso is the normal thing you get when you order coffee.  You don’t have an option for an American style of watery weak coffee.  You can have a latte (with hot milk) or cappacino (a breakfast coffee with frothed hot milk), and a few other variants (I like the macchiato, espresso with a drop of milk).  I’ve now done four travel courses to Italy, and we faculty who go on those really love espresso.

Again, it’s an experience.  When I smell espresso, and taste the rich coffee (with sugar), I’m back in Italy, at least a bit.  Espresso, contrary to popular belief, does not have more caffeine than a cup of American coffee.  Dark roasted coffees have less caffeine, and espresso is drunk in very small quantities — you’ll get a lot more of a caffeine buzz from your local Starbucks brew.  I do like other coffees.  When I traveled all too briefly to Greece and Turkey, I got hooked on Turkish coffee (which the Greeks, of course, call Greek coffee).  On flavor and taste, Turkish coffee beats Espresso.  But while I still remember being entranced by Istanbul in the brief four days there (a city I really want to revisit, though I think it’s doubled in size since I was there in 1985), Espresso and Italy are so deep in my memories and experience that when I think of coffee, I think of espresso first.

American coffee?  I’ll drink it for the caffeine if needed.  I can drink it cold, I can drink it old (my joke with the Provost’s AA after, to her horror, I once drank coffee that had been sitting and getting heavily concentrated all day, is that if I have meeting scheduled to just leave the coffee out all night so I can have day old coffee at the meeting).  It doesn’t matter because, well, it’s just bland American coffee.  And those who love Dunkin Donuts?  WHY?  (Yikes, that’s the snobby part coming out).  McDonalds coffee tastes weird to me.

For those Dunkin Donut coffee lovers out there thinking of avoiding travel so as not to lose your connection to your current favorite coffee, don’t worry.  Each person experiences travel differently and brings home some connection with another culture.  Italian gelato is another favorite (though I still love good old American Dairy Queen cones), German breads (yet I still love almost all kinds of bread), and Belgian chocolates top the list.  Travel changes a person because it alters perspective and gets you to look at the world differently.  The special tastes and connections we bring back, whether with coffee, food, or art, reflect our inner desire not to let go of that experience, to remain at least in part, a traveler.

So tonight, when my work (and work out) is done, I’ll relax.  I’ll get a tall Weissbier glass, and poor the Schneiderweisse slowly in, enjoying the smell and the look of my favorite beer.  Maybe I’ll put on a Udo Lindenberg or Konstantin Wecker CD, or perhaps a German film like Lola Rennt.  Maybe I’ll listen to the songs popular when I was there the first time: Nena’s 99 Luftballons, or Falco’s Der Kommissaer. But I’ll sip that beer, and part of me will be not only back in Germany, but back in time, remembering the emotions of those travels long ago.

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Fascism, American Style

In the past I compared the crisis we are now facing to that of the old Roman Republic in its last days.  Corrupted from within, political and economic systems facing crisis, the Republic gave way to an empire, as Julius Ceasar took power, and Augustus consolidated it.  Looking at the corrupt and broken Italian political landscape in the early 20th Century, Benito Mussolini looked back to Ceasar as inspiration for a new form of politics: fascism.  Mussolini believed that fascism would bridge the class divide, unite the people and provide stable, effective rule.

Of course, German fascism, defined by racism and genocide, made the term off limits, the thing you call someone when the time for rational discourse is over.  Yet the ideas behind fascism are persistent.  And, looking at the current economic crisis, and the possibility of a dollar collapse creating intense inflation down the line, one has to wonder if the US isn’t destined for a fascist future.  In many ways our Republic has, like Rome, moved towards empire already in its foreign policy.   Yet the economic crisis (discussed here) is showing fundamental weaknesses in the core structure of our economy, with our prosperity and current patterns of consumption unsustainable.  That suggests a looming political crisis.   No party is going to openly proclaim itself fascist; if it comes, fascism will arrive in the guise of something else.  So what would fascism, American style, look like?

Many believe it’s already here.  Some look at the rhetoric and fear inspired by the McCain-Palin campaign and see inklings of fascist nationalism and xenophobia.  Others look at the Democrats taking virtual single party rule and Obama’s intense popularity and see fascism there.   Are our political parties already moving in that direction?  How would we tell if they were?

Political fascism does not have to be racist and genocidal.  If it hadn’t been for Hitler, we might have more thriving openly fascist parties around today.  But it tends to: a) try to eliminate the relevance of class differences (though not their reality) to create a sense of societal unity; b) appeal to the emotions of the public for support; c) distrust democracy since the public tends to be uneducated about the matters of governance; d) emphasize a single ruler around whom society can unite; and e) distrust intellectuals and others who might question the kind of social unity fascism aspires to.  Both of our parties do, indeed, share some of these attributes.

First, the Democrats.  I noted last July that our consumer society already has attributes of fascism, and that the Obama campaign was based very much on a marketing strategy.  After all, most Americans do not understand the issues before the country, that’s why the debates focused on talking points and simple, repeated messages by both candidates.  That’s marketing.  Democracy has already ceased to be about determining the proper policy for the country, it’s about which team we trust in power, and Americans tend to make that judgment with their gut not their head.   Talk about Obama as “the one,” his ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars through small contributions, and the celebrations around the country after his election are virtually unprecedented in American politics.

At a time of crisis with the Democrats fully in power, the Obama Administration could re-make the American system, giving more power to government bureaucracies.  Moreover, while communism had the government run everything, fascism was an alliance of government with big money (business and finance).  Already the Democrats are courting major American corporations, and the style President Bush used for the “bailout” is designed to give the government increased leverage in the financial markets.  No one thinks that we’re going to go the socialist route; but a close business-government alliance is not hard to imagine, it’s been building for decades.

But Americans are sick of war — surely they wouldn’t buy the hyper nationalism of fascism?  Probably not.  The lessons of Iraq sting, and Americans have learned humility.  But looking not at Hitler but back to Augustus, the Roman Empire’s holdings almost all came from before the Republic became an Empire.  Britain was added later, as were a few areas on the periphery, but until Rome actually started to collapse, the cost and pain of Roman wars was less for the Empire than it had been for the Republic.   If Obama’s new foreign policy team is able to recast US foreign policy in a way to sustain influence but not be so aggressive, it could maintain a powerful position globally, even without so much military spending.

But Obama?  Aren’t the Republicans closer to fascism?   Fascism is usually on the “right” after all.   And, indeed, one sees fascist ideas and tactics within the GOP as well.  Fascists usually have an “internal enemy,” some group weakening society from within.  For Hitler it was the Jews (and intellectuals, pacifists, socialists, liberals, etc.), and Mussolini focused on anti-Communism.   The way in which some in the GOP take an emotional anti-immigration stance (build a fence to keep ’em out!) with xenophobia hidden only by a lame “we’re talking only illegal immigration here” excuse was enough to scuttle a real immigration reform attempt in 2007.  Like most emotional causes it quickly faded, but clearly there is a fear of outsiders coming in — Fox’s John Gibson even argued that whites should have more babies since ‘others’ are breeding more rapidly and making whites of European origin soon a minority in America.  Fascists claim to be defending ‘traditional values’ from the hedonistic amorality of modernism — campaigns against gay marriage and some social conservative rhetoric (especially some of what Pat Robertson has said) sounds similar to fascist propaganda.

The attempts to demonize Obama, raise fears about Rev. Wright, William Ayres, or call Obama a socialist are all the kind of tactics one would expect from fascists — though such tactics have also been pretty common in American politics for some time.   The hypernationalists in the Republican party, engaging in hero worship for the military, making excuses for failures, and lashing out at ‘the liberals’ and the ‘the left,’ probably don’t realize how much their rhetoric mirrors that of fascists in Germany and Italy during their rise to power.   Talk radio is very Goebbelesque in its twisting of quotes and efforts to simplify issues into clear emotional themes, ignoring facts that might get in the way of their ’cause.’

After 9-11 the US was quick to focus on emotional reactions to the attacks.  If one tried to analyze why they happened or what motivated the terrorists, that was derided as ‘making excuses’ for clear evil, and people found themselves under attack in ways we hadn’t seen since the McCarthy era.   Some politicians said we should threaten to bomb Mecca, a popular pundit said we should conquer them (the Muslim world) and convert them to Christianity.  Gen. Wesley Clark said he saw a list of up to seven countries the US was planning to invade, believing our military power could reshape the region.  For awhile, people were afraid to question this new nationalism.  Speakers were booed off stage when doubting the sincerity of the mission, the Dixie Chicks were boycotted for criticizing the President.  Here at UMF when students and staff were reading names of victims of the Iraq war, noting both the names of Iraqis and of American soldiers, one delivery service driver got so angry he lept from his truck and started shouting at people in the group.  How dare one put Iraqi lives on the same level as our soldiers!   One shouldn’t think, criticize or offer alternatives, just wave the flag and unite for the country as we lash back against “them.”  That faded rather quickly, but gave Americans a quick glance at what fascism feels like.

In short, on both the left and the right, there are inklings of what one would expect in a kind of fascism.   It wouldn’t be the Hitlerian kind, but rather more like Julius and Augustus, replacing a dysfunctional Republic with a centralized elite rule, using media and campaigns to keep the public emotionally satisfied.   Mix a bit of the idealist appeal of Obama with the fear from the right, and politicians might learn to strike a balance that gains them long term political support.

However, there are limits to how ‘fascistic’ American politics can become.  First, the constitution and a democratic civil society are entrenched, and people are not going to throw away elections in order to follow a popular leader.  This means that there will continue to be campaigns and shifts of power, and as power goes from one leader to another, and especially one party to another, there is a check on how out of control or corrupt the government can become.   Our civil society cherishes freedom and individual rights; that creates a cultural limit on what any government can do.  Events like the McCarthy era or post-9-11 fervor are short lived, our core values last.   Second, Americans have strong state and local governments, all of which function closer to the ideal of democracy than our federal government.  These also act on a check of centralized power, and in fact could be an alternative to increased federal power in coming years.   It is unlikely that the federal government could truly control state and local actions.  Third, as tattered as it is in this era of sensationalism, we do have the media.   There are also blogs — even though the political blogs often sound the most fascistic in that they tend to be hyper partisan and emotion-based — and ways of communicating to other groups.  This suggests a kind of grass roots resistance to and knowledge of elite activity.

Still, it’s important to recognize that the stuff of fascism is still the stuff of moden politics, even if the term has become discredited.  We see signs of it in both parties, and in crisis the temptation to mix centralized power with creating an emotionally satisfied public is obvious.  Rather than deny it, or simply see it as a problem the “other side” has, we have to with open eyes recognize the dangers our system faces, and work hard to try to avoid falling into the traps of apathy and a partisanship so intense that the other side is assumed simply “wrong” or “evil,” and ones’ own side “good.”  That’s emotion.  That’s when politicians try to fill your “void” with their own meaning, making you easier to manipulate.  As long as we don’t fall for that, and hang on to our core American values, we should be able to keep our Republic despite the current crisis.

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