Archive for August 24th, 2009

The Strange Summer of 2009

As August winds down, the summer of ’09 is about to finish and it was a strange one.   Here in the Northeast it was an unusually cool and wet summer, while out West they had record heat, as the oddities of global climate change start showing themselves.    While there is still a week to go before school starts (for me a better measure of summer’s end than the vernal equinox), I have some reflections on the summer of 2009.

Here in the US it was a “letdown summer.”  Perhaps inevitably, the hope garnered by electing a new, charismatic and exciting President gave way to the recognition that the problems we face as a nation are huge, and the President may be inspiring, but is not magic.  President Obama himself is learning the difference between a campaign and governing.   The former is built on ambition and ideas, the latter on results.   But results are hard to come by, and the opposition fights tough.

Although Obama’s approval ratings remain good, they’ve come back to earth, and the country is worried about the on going budget problems and recession.   Even as Japan and many European countries are starting to see positive growth numbers, the US finds itself still mired in bad news.  This is not likely to change.   The US started from a high point built on trade deficits and a consumer economy driven by easy credit and cheap foreign goods.   The Europeans and Japanese never went that route; even with high governmental debt they maintained stricter credit regimes and avoided high trade deficits.   In the heady times earlier this decade this made them appear behind the US in economic health, but in actuality it has meant a less severe recession.

The crisis is global, however, and no one is out of the woods.   Americans are starting to realize this will take more than a new President to solve, and that this isn’t just another economic cycle.   Obama can recover — Reagan and Clinton each dipped farther their first term — but he’s confronting the nitty gritty of real world governance, as the public confronts the resilience of real world problems.

Other aspects of the summer just seemed weird.  With the first black President and fears of assassination, Republican activists started coming to Presidential events armed.   In town hall meetings those opposed to health care reform came out aggressively, often with strange accusations of “death panels” (referring to something begun in the Bush Administration, ironically).   The impetus for change seemed to wane by late August.   But strange political scandals also were also brewing.   Governor Sanford of South Carolina disappeared for a weekend, claiming at first that he had been hiking the Appalachian trail, then ultimately admitting he was with his Argentinian soul mate mistress.   Another affair by Sen. Ensign (with weird money exchanges), and the strange resignation of Alaska’s Governor Palin all assured that political spectacle would trump political discourse.

Michael Jackson’s death, of course, was the big news.   Fitting that in a strange summer the bizarre death of one of the strangest celebrities of our era would take center stage.    In a way he symbolizes some of the cultural ills that brought us to this crisis: he was so addicted to material wealth that he lost sight of what gives life meaning.   He tried to change himself, seek weird external satisfactions, and ultimately drowned himself in drugs and escapism.   He had it all, success, fame and wealth, but it wasn’t enough.

On the international scene things have been relatively quiet, but disquieting.   Afghanistan spirals into deeper tumult, threatening to become Obama’s Vietnam.   It doesn’t appear the US can win without a massive increase in force levels (and even then nothing’s guaranteed), but the public both does not want another major military venture, nor does it want to see the Taliban come back to power.   In Iraq the US has withdrawn from center stage, but violence remains intense and things could explode at any time.

In terms of the economy, politics, world events, and the weather, one gets the feeling that the strange and somewhat uneventful summer of 2009 represents the world on edge.    As the hope for change fades with the harsh light of reality, there is real fear that the economy will spiral further downward, and the foreign conflicts Obama inherited will become his undoing.   Though he inherited them, they are his now, and he is responsible for the choices moving forward.

For me personally, it was a summer full of work.   I taught two summer courses (with the honors course especially engaging and enjoyable), as well as summer experience.  We are still in the midst of our never ending yard project, which has entailed a clearing in the back, a drainage system, and attempts now to get soil to stay down and grass to grow.   On top of that, course preparation, starting a research project, and meetings have meant that except for a few weekend days or evenings, the summer has been one of constant work.  Yet I don’t feel worn out by it.   The physical work on projects was actually refreshing, and I like the results.  Also, I needed the teaching work to pay for the summer projects.   It was also a strange summer in that we had guests for over two months, disrupting the routine, but yet contributing greatly to the success of the summer projects.

So as the strange summer of 2009 ends, I have a sense of foreboding.    Is inflation, stagflation or even hyperinflation just around the corner?   What will happen with Afghanistan and Iraq?   The situation between Israel and Iran seems to have been pushed from the limelight, but that could change at any time.    Is al qaeda really subdued, or are they planning a return to center stage?  Will Obama be able to follow through on changes he promised, or will the weight of budget deficits and political gridlock tie him down?  I’m hoping for a good autumn, but I feel like we’re in the Hitchcock film The Birds, and the birds are all sitting on the wires and ledges, getting ready to pounce.

Despite that, I’m reading for the fall.  I love the start of a new semester, am excited about my classes and hoping these ominous vibes of late summer are just the after effect of having no real time off.

Yet I’ve saved the strangest tidbit for last.   In yesterday’s paper there was a picture so bizarre and previously unimaginable that I thought the universe must be going through some kind of major transition.   Are the magnetic poles shifting?   Are we nearing the end of the Mayan calendar?   Because there, in a color photo, wearing Viking Purple and Gold was Brett Favre, Quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. It doesn’t get any stranger than that.



Yesterday I heard the news about a seven year old girl being washed off the rocks at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park.   Though she and a few others were rescued, she died at the hospital, a victim of the surf from Hurricane Bill.   In the paper today was a story about a local man who is pleading guilty to manslaughter.   Apparently he was watching an 11 month old and, driven crazy by her screaming, hit her in the stomach hard enough to kill her.   He then tried to cover it up by claiming she fell down the stairs.   Also, he seems to be devastated by the event, and allegedly has contemplated suicide.

When I heard the news about the seven year old, I closed my mind and made a picture of a young girl, about Ryan’s age, excited to see the high waves at one of the most beautiful national parks in the country.   Her family was likely in vacation mode, relaxed, and not even considering that there could be danger at this usually serene park.   I imagined what it was like for the parents now, trying to cope, the girl’s shock, fear and pain as she was mortally wounded, and the emotions of the rescue workers and doctors as they tried to save her.    Did she have siblings, are her parents still together?   I don’t know, but I imagined what they might be experiencing.   As I did that, I made no effort to prevent my emotions from feeling that pain, or tears from coming into my eyes.

I can shut off emotions.   I’ve learned that if I think abstractly, remind myself of statistics, and put things in a different perspective, I could hear a story like that and think “oh well, that’s life.   People die in accidents every day.”   I mean, I teach about the Rwandan genocide which killed nearly a million in 100 days, Stalin’s gulags with 20 million dead, or Mao’s industrialization plan for China that lead to a famine which killed 30 million.   People are starving daily, children are orphaned thanks to AIDS throughout Africa, children are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, and in war zones children face death and injury daily.

So if I think in those terms, I can completely avoid any tears or sorrow over a news story about one seven year old.   Yet I do not.   I choose to let the emotions come forward, feel them, examine them, think about what I would do if something happened to my child, and let the tragedy affect me.    Long ago I made a conscious choice not to shut off my empathy in cases like this.

I do so for two reasons.   First, I want to know myself and my emotions.  If I keep them bottled up, and abstract away chances to really think through the emotional meaning of an event, then I will hide a part of myself from myself.    I realized that if I did that abstraction thing, after awhile it would become second nature.  I’d never really feel emotion over something like the death of one stranger; at a logical rational level it’s meaningless.    At least she had a good life (I assume) for seven years, unlike seven year olds butchered in third world war zones.   Soon, though, it would be natural to turn off all empathy — I could abstract away every circumstance and event, and coldly yet rationally accept “that’s the way the world is,” or “their choices brought about the consequence.”   I might even fool myself that such an ability was “strength” and that those who felt emotion were being “weak.”

Yet that abstraction is the easy way.   It’s also dangerous.   If you hide your own emotions from yourself, then you may not understand what’s happening when a tragedy in ones’ own life forces unexplored emotions to the surface.    One time after my first son was born, I thought about what would happen if he were abducted or killed in an accident.  I went through it in a way that literally had tears running down my face (and hoping my wife wouldn’t wake up and wonder what the hell I was crying about).   Few people put themselves through that kind of experience, but I felt it necessary to explore how I would react and think.  Of course, I knew that it hadn’t happened, but oddly enough in the emotion of that kind of exercise reality isn’t always as strong as imagination.   To break out of it, I had to force myself back to reality.   I think, though, I know myself better because I don’t always shut down emotion.   If I’m in public I’ll do the rationalizing/abstracting thing quite often to avoid embarrassment, but otherwise I let myself feel.

Another reason is that I think it has an impact on how I look at ethics and choices in the world.   Take war.   For many people war is often chosen as a reaction to an evil leader, or a threat from a strange civilization or ideology.    The emotion there is fear, and war is abstracted into simply an act of providing security or implementing justice.   Yet for me, my first thought is the emotion of the people who will be killed, the human tragedy that war entails — especially in an era when 80% of the casualties are innocent civilians.   This causes me to view such things differently than I otherwise would, and makes me prone to oppose war and look at human ethics before abstract interest.

Of course, one could accuse me of mushy thinking — consideration of the suffering of innocents might blind me from seeing the stark reality that war is a necessity in this dangerous world and not fighting when necessary might cause even more suffering.    Yet my thinking isn’t mushy.   I understand the arguments about war, I have been studying and teaching that material for 20 years!   When I talk about, say, the Iraq war in class, I spend 20 minutes making the most persuasive case possible for the war, to show students why it could have been seen as logical, even necessary.   So my thinking is very clear on the arguments and logic.   In fact, one reason I choose to put the human ethic first is because from my knowledge of war and history, it’s rare that conflicts actually improve things.   The only time they seem to fix things is when they so utterly destroy a system so that the survivors have to start over from scratch.

In all political debates I try to take this notion of ethics as being connected to how we emotionally understand the predicament of others seriously.   This pushes me in diverse directions.   Sometimes towards what might be called socialism, sometimes towards libertarian views.    Ideologies are intellectual abstractions, they don’t connect well with taking the subjective human experience seriously.    The choice I’ve made on how to view the world seems to me to be emotionally and intellectually more robust and tenable than either pure emotion or pure abstraction.   Yet it creates calls I have to make based on purely subjective criteria — and, of course, there is no reason for others to adopt my criteria.

It’s also why I have mixed feelings about the second case.   If the killer really did simply lose control in a moment of rage, and is devastated by the result, how much vengeance is appropriate?   The family of the dead child may want the killer to pay severely, but does that do anything to bring back the child?   Does it just waste two lives, when perhaps it’s possible for the killer to learn, change, and do good?   Abstracting the case makes it easier — one can say “he killed her, he should pay,” or conversely “it was a rage crime, he can be rehabilitated.”   To think about the suffering of the family of the child, the child, the man’s own inner torment, and what’s best is a case with no clear solution.   Tragedies are like that.